Denali National Park 24/05/10 – 29/05/10

Having arrived at the Denali Park entrance mid afternoon on Monday 24th May, I spent the next few hours sorting out what I was going to do in the Park. My plan was to get a bus down to Toklat at mile 53 of the Park Road and then cycle west over to Kantishna at the end of the road (mile 90). I organised a backcountry permit* that would allow me to camp near Wonder Lake (but specifically not in the unopened camp ground) at around mile 85 that night. The next two days would be spent cycling back out to the park entrance, with a backcountry permit allowing me to camp in the Polychrome area around mile 45.

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Brooding skies and big scenery… the story of Denali National Park and Reserve

My bus left the park entrance about 8 am on the 25th. I was the only cyclist and viewed with curiosity by the rest of my fellow passengers. Our driver, Nancy, gave us a full and informed commentary as we made the 3 hour drive out to Toklat. Along the way we saw a few caribou, Dall sheep, moose and a couple of bears (that I was proud to spot high up on a ridge). Once in Toklat I prepared my gear for cycling while the other passengers milled about before disembarking back to where they came from. I felt a slight patronising pity for my bus mates; this was many of their only chance to see Mount McKinley and they had been denied by low cloud cover. Also, their hopes of close up encounters with bears had been left shattered as the local wildlife seemed intent on missing that days performance.

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A Dall Sheep

Before long I had mounted my stead and begun puffing my way up the first gravelly hill  on a course towards the western end of the road. The first 5 miles were a real shock to the system; a 1,000 foot incline that brutally sapped my strength and willing. I had never really cycled unpaved roads before and although understanding of their challenges was not in any way experienced enough to appreciate the nuances required to progress along them with any grace. As my wheels sunk into the freshly spread aggregate, still to be bulldozed by a season of bus traffic, I struggled to keep upright. Although never actually falling, I was painfully aware of the heightened sensitivity in handling a heavy bike under these conditions.

The Park Road just out of Toklat

My struggle over Highway Pass had me doubting the wisdom of this pursuit and seriously reassessing my expectations of the longer and more daunting Dalton Highway. I felt alone and was certain a mother bear with cubs lay around every corner. For the first couple of hours I take no pride in admitting that I was a little scared. Even the descent was a challenge, as steering my laden juggernaut relied on subtle leans and delicate nudges of the handlebars. A couple of times I had to call a halt as my course led me uncontrollably towards the edge of the road; my tires had such temperamental purchase on the loose road surface I felt certain that any movement back up the subtle camber would send me sprawling into a dusty world of ripped skin and shattered confidence.

My uncomfortable solitude abated somewhat when I began to notice bike tracks in the dirt. These not only served to lead me onto the areas of firmer ground but also set my mind to work on something other than my impending fight with a bear. There were two tracks and from their unsteady appearance on ascents I could tell they were going my way. There were others cycling the road that day. My thoughts immediately went back to word I’d got at Byers Lake that there were a French couple touring towards Prudhoe, a day or so ahead of me. I had noticed bike tracks on the shoulder of the highway intermittently since leaving Anchorage and was comforted that I may meet some other cycle tourists sooner or later.

Another slog uphill to Stony Overlook had me take my first five-minute break. As I looked out over the road meandering off below me I chatted with a Ranger who was out clearing the culverts. She assured me that there was indeed two cycle tourists about 10 mile ahead of me. Although actually excited by the prospect of catching these like mined individuals I fronted out to the Ranger that I was annoyed and  hoping to enjoy the experience without coming across any human distraction. I am sure that the coming months will see me accept my often denied interest in others as my own company wares thinner and thinner.

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The view from Stony Overlook

For a couple of miles I had a fox trot alongside me as I rode. At first I was a bit uncomfortable with this arrangement but soon warmed to my new friend. Then out of nowhere he suddenly took off, darting ahead of me to clamp his jaws around an unsuspecting Snow Hare. With the Hare still wriggling, he turned and looked at me with eyes that said ‘ha ha I caught it and you didn’t!’ The crafty fox had been using me as cover. It was enthralling to see nature at work like this and I had to resist getting my camera out. That act was an act of life in it’s primative form, I pretentiously thought that taking a picture would only cheapen its purity.

I rode onto the closed Eielson visitor centre (mile 66) where I enjoyed some lunch, incredible views and the company of a couple of maintenance workers. Having refused a lift down to Kantishna I cycled on towards my goal. I had thought the journey to the western end would be a simple downhill from here but it proved otherwise. By now my bear call had evolved into an efficient and easily repeatable ‘HELL BEAR’ which I found myself hollering every four strokes of the pedal. As I plodded on some rather ominous clouds developed in the previously clear southern sky. Within a short while these clouds were rumbling and I could make out lightning bolts. I stopped for a moment or two, believing that the storm may run past me, but soon regretted my decision and decided to try outrunning it instead. With renewed focus I forged on, shadowed on my left by an increasingly ominous gloom.

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There’s a storm brewing…

About ten miles out from Wonder Lake I was really regretting not having taken that lift, a feeling that deepened as that very truck came into view on its way back out from Kantishna. Unremarkable at distance, the truck became increasingly interesting as it pulled nearer. I soon made out two bikes propped up in its trailer and was excited to see a couple of slender tanned beings in the cab. As we pulled up along side one another I was genuinely excited to be introduced to Florent and Aurelie, two cyclists of about my age who had set off from France a good while ago. They will be heading south from Denali all the way to Tierra Del Fuego having already clocked up over 10,000 miles through South East Asia (www.terredepaysages.over-blog.com). We spent some time exchanging details before they were driven east and I cycled on into the thunder-storm.

The French bicycle tracks had become something of a comfort to me and although they continued to fall under my wheels their resonance was now hollow as I knew they would not lead me to their creators. I was once again alone and found a hint of desperation creeping into my bear cries.

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Not long before this sky was clear and blue

By the time I reached mile 85 and the turn off for Wonder Lake I was tired and the rain was becoming increasingly heavy. I was determined to ride all the way to Kantishna and thought little about turning off and pitching up for the night. A few miles down the road and several hundred feet lower I reached the North Lodge, the first of a series of private settlements that is Kantishna. As the storm was steadily cranking itself up towards full electric output I looked wearily down the road towards Kantishna proper and then up towards the North Lodge where a light blazed out the open door of some kind of engine room. I figured I’d find someone up there who could tell me just how far I had left on the road. With the storm worsening and my energy seriously flagging, I knew that any further adventure down the road would be met soon after with a long draining slog back up the hills.

There was no one at the Lodge but none the less I was able to shelter under an awning as the worst of the storm broke. A couple of ten minutes later I was clad in waterproofs and heading back up the hills away from Kantishna. Those few miles back to Wonder Lake were incredibly hard; my right Achilles was hurting me, I was sweating profusely in my waterproofs and the wet road surface was proving even more challenging than the dry.

Worried about bears…

Some fresh bear tracks had also put my nerves on edge so the 7 miles up to Wonder lake campground were negotiated against a backdrop of insane conversation between myself and myself, all designed to alert any hungry critters. I remember one particularly extended episode featuring myself (played by myself) and a fictitious doorman from a Kantishna lodge (played by myself), who spoke very much like Danny from ‘Withnail And I ‘. The verbal battle centred around the latters absurd refusal to let me into the building as I wasn’t wearing a blazer and thus contravened the lodge dress regulations. My anger boiled over into an expletive ridden rant when a bear turned up at the lodge and was let in despite not wearing a blazer. The doorman stating casually: ‘I don’t care if you’ve been f****** cycling all day or if it is raining, you’re not f****** coming in!’. The whole crazy exercise turned out as a thinly veiled excuse for me to shout as many expletives as I could muster and ended in me just repeatedly hollering ‘BLAZER’ and ‘RINSE OUT’… don’t ask. I don’t think sanity will be an issue over the next couple of years.

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View from the tent at Wonder Lake campground

On eventually reaching Wonder Lake campground I quickly became cold from the wet and proceeded to wander around aimlessly in the rain. Before long I had nervously prepared and munched on some pasta, stashed my bike in a bear locker and pitched my tent. I thought to hell with not camping at the unopened camp site, I’d be doing less damage pitching up here than wading off into the backcountry. By the time I fell asleep I was physically and mentally shattered, things were starting to smell mildly cheesy and my right heel was starting to really hurt.

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Incredible morning views of Denali and the Alaska range

I was dosed up with ibuprofen and on my out of the campground before 8:00 the next morning. I had awoken to another stunning morning of sunshine. The views from my campspot were mind blowing; a huge vista of lakes, creeks, glacier and forest that culminated in the southern side of Mount McKinley which reared 18,000 feet into the crystal clear morning light. All the efforts of the previous day fell into sharp context. I was here, I was doing it, I felt blessed.

For two hours I labored back up the road I had crawled down the previous afternoon. The rain had dampened the dusty road and washed away any previous tracks. It was now with fascination that I looked down on bear prints that must have appeared in the last 9 or so hours. I had gotten a hold of myself and was  beginning to appreciate my proximity to the wildlife instead of tip toeing fearfully around it; a dramatic transformation of mindset in just a few hours. I must have only covered 10 miles when I noticed that cycle tracks had reappeared on the road. Were these fresh or had the rain just missed this locality? The answer came quickly as I soon spotted something on the road ahead of me. My initial reaction to this is always to get the binoculars out and check it out. Fortunately this was no bear but as I’d hoped, a pair of Frances finest. I caught them up and we cycled together to Eielson visitor centre.

Aurelie giving some smiley French action

Florent giving some casual French stylings

The visitor centre is great, although not officially open until the buses come through on June 1st, it’s toilets were open and we could get drinking water. We gratefully stopped, fixed some lunch and quickly became acquainted with Bart, the  silver bearded night janitor, charged with keeping the place clean and organised. As we sat discussing our next move, hungry squirrels scurried around our feet and a mew gull hovered expectantly above.

Florent and Aurelie had got permits to go out for a few days hiking from the Visitors centre and invited me to come with them. I had no such permits but as the park was empty and the Backcountry Rangers not yet out I knew I could get away with it. We left our bikes with Bart, packed our rucksacks (a real effort when having to incorporate a bear barrel) and tramped off into the wilderness.

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Striding out…

… in convoy with my French counterparts

We crashed through brush, tiptoed over delicately iced rivers, forded streams and stomped up grassy slopes, taking turns to bellow our personal bear calls as we went. After roughly 3 hours we settled down to eat before hiking another 45 minutes to set up camp. Our campsite sat on top of a little snow speckled shoulder giving extraordinary views both ways down the valley below. A windstorm had passed and the sun was really shining. After a short times contemplation we took off our sunglasses and crawled into our respective tents for the night.

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Relaxing in camp with Florent and Aurelie

Pitched up in the 11:30 sun

Our campsite was just above the two snowy streaks centre right

8 hours later I was preparing to hike back to the visitor centre, leaving the French contingent to continue on their multi day adventure. My plan was to ride back up the road later that day, to arrive at the park entrance the day after. But as I strode off I soon realised my foot was not in great shape with an increasingly painful and inflamed right Achilles tendon. I thought I’d be nervous, hiking alone in bear country, but I turned out to thoroughly enjoy it; plotting my course across the ice and rivers (there are no trails). For the first time I was away from all highways and roads and felt really small beneath the towering Denali mountain… a really exhilarating hike. On reaching the Eielson centre my foot was really painful so you can imagine my joy at being greeted by Bart and a bottle of his cold Alaskan Pale Ale.

Eielson Visitor Centre

I decided to spend the rest of the day and that night at the centre with Bart. It was great, superb views, great facilities and free beer. Not many people go out on the Park road and come back with their washing done… I did! I spent the afternoon on my Jaw harp, drying washing, chatting to Steve and Barb who cycled through, watching out for wildlife, writing my diary and icing my foot. That evening Bart cooked up some pasta and I slept on the staff couch. Bart was a godsend, fantastic company and very generous. Like many Alaskans he would be spending his summer working to save some funds to get through and enjoy the subsequent winter. We shared our views on the world and life, building a mutual respect and fondness that will doubtless live long in the memory.

Bart and yours truely (literally) in front of Mount McKinley

On the morning of the 28th I dosed up on pain killers, said my goodbyes to Bart and started riding again. My foot was pretty painful but there was enough to keep my mind from dwelling on it, what with the climbs, poor road surfaces and trying not to get eaten! I cooked up some noodles just past Toklat and rode on to Igloo campground where I’d pitch up on the sly. The roads past Tolkat were much better as the buses had packed the gravel smoother. They would come past every 30 minutes or so, slowing right down so as not to cover me in dust. As they passed by I was met with a line of gawping faces and waving hands, promoting in me a bit of superiority complex (even though they’re the ones in comfort who’ll be sleeping in beds that night). Once I’d got to the top of one big climb (Sable Pass – 5 miles and 1,000 foot ascent on poor roads) I was caught up by a bus. I followed it down the other side for a while getting caked in dust, before managing to pass it and disappear out of sight.

I woke early at Igloo campground, again to avoid the Rangers and set off on the final 33 miles towards the end of the road. It was a glorious morning once again. Conscious that I was nearing the end of a special memory I found myself stopping frequently to drink in my surroundings and contemplate on the privilege of my experience. The flora and fauna on the eastern end on the road were lusher, bigger and greener than at the west. Even though I had been lucky to watch the brown landscape rapidly green up during my few days in the Park, I really noticed the richness of smells that greeted my return east.

Simply glorious

When I eventually made it out past Savage River to the last 15 miles  of the road my pace had slowed to a limp as my foot caused be nagging discomfort. This last section is paved and open to all public traffic so I was greeted by quite a few Memorial day revellers on the slick smooth road surface. Just after Savage River I stopped with the other tourists and watched through my binoculars as two Grizzly bears sought out food by the water.  I was not enjoying their company and already missed the challenges of the unpaved road.

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Nearing the end of the road

The final 10 miles back to the Park entrance were down hill. Hooking my elbows into the  loops of my handlebars I cruised the descents, proudly hitting 41 mph in a 35 mph zone  and swerving about the road whenever traffic allowed. In no time I was at the main visitor area where I promptly relaxed into a sun drenched seat to enjoy a well deserved cold beer and packet of crisps. As I sat festering (having not washed for nearly a week) amongst the squeaky clean tourists I listened in on their conversations: ‘Why d’they drop us off here so early? What are we supposed to do?’. I chuckled in disbelief.

So I’ve ridden the Denali Park Road and fulfilled a dream. On the way I saw 5 bears (one of which came right up to the visitor centre while I was there), many Caribou and Dahl sheep, a couple of moose and one wolf. I also had that fox trot alongside me for a couple of miles, a Golden Eagle, a Bald Eagle and of course Barry the Bumblebee who would reappear every time I stopped.

A Grizzly visiting the Eielson Centre

A great adventure and hopefully the start of many more.

You can view the photo diary for this episode here.

* Anyone that wants to go out hiking in the park and camp outside of the campgrounds must obtain a backcountry permit. These are allocated according to stipulated areas that the park is divided into. The Rangers will only allow a certain number of people to camp in one area at a time, thus reducing potential damage, disruption to habitats and traffic. In season Backcountry Rangers patrol the park and will slap a fine on anyone out and about without a permit.

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