Alaska: The Last Frontier

I went to visit my sister, husband, and their three kids in Anchorage, Alaska. Here’s a post on the trip.

Day 0: It’s a long way

I had not bothered to really appreciate how far away Alaska was until 1) the flight and 2)the military classification. I booked a pretty simple two-leg flight to AK (coming back is a little more complicated). RDU –> Houston –> Anchorage. When I got to Houston, I asked how long was the flight to Anchorage. “Seven hours, twelve minutes”. What? That’s like going to Europe or something. With no food served on the flight, I rushed to several airport restaurants and loaded up with about 3000 calories hold me over. Point 2. My brother-in-law is in the Air Force  and he re-upped his AK assignment for three more years. And his family is entitled to a trip to their “home” since AK is considered an “overseas assignment”. So even though AK is considered part of the US, it’s more apart than part.

After a two-hour delay in Houston, I got to Anchorage, tired but excited to see some fam and this Last Frontier.

Day 1: Trail Run

I got a text message Mike, my brother-in-law, several days before heading to AK. It said “How about a 10 mile run, pretty flat, out to some lakes”.  Little did I know,  Mike was training for the 24-mile Crow Pass Race, a rocky trail race held just south of Anchorage. So we head out on the trail, first thing in the morning with Evan, another Crow Passer, and immediately take this intense climb up the side of a mountain. Flat, my ass! It did eventually level off and the climb was replaced with a rocky muddy “trail”. At mile five, we did get to a nice lake nestled in a valley. Unfortunately, the clouds were so low, that it was hard to see much.AK030-run

Needless to say, my road shoes were not up for the task. In addition to the sliding around, on several occasions my foot placement was off and I found myself shoe-less as the mud had sucked the shoe off my foot. I will say, the cool temperatures (50’s) and the light sputtering rain was a nice change from the 90+ degrees currently in NC.

After the run, we packed up our gear and bikes, met Jeff, who had a nice camper, and headed to the fine town of Hope, AK.

We arrived at the trailhead for the Resurrection Pass trail where we dropped off the camper and then shuttled a car to our eventual destination, Cooper Landing. After  some pizza and beers, we headed back to Hope for the night.

Day 2: Resurrection Pass

Mike, Jeff, and I saddled up about 8 am and hit the trail for Cooper Landing about 40 miles away and 4000 ft of climbing, passing over Resurrection Pass. Jeff was riding a new Specialized Rockhopper hardtail 29er; Mike was totally old-school with a steel, full-rigid Gary Fisher 26er; I had the black stallion, a rented Trek Fuel Ex 8 full-squish 29er with dropper post and my de-luxe flats. As you can see from the elevation profile, we had a steady climb to the pass. AK001-res pass elevWhat the profile doesn’t show was a series of rolling section. The rolling sections had the same pattern: come around a bend, descend down to a creek (one of the many that flowed into the Resurrection Creek), cross a bridge and hit a punchy climb followed by a more gradual climb. Rinse and repeat.

AK008-Res gap

We each had bear spray since the area had plenty of black and brown bears (BTW, brown bears are similar to grizzlies but they are found more along the coast and are much larger, with access to things like salmon). And associated with black and brown bears are numerous, gruesome stories about being mauled and killed by a bear. Thus the bear spray. I was told the one of the major instigators for bear attacks was surprising a bear on the trail. And the easiest way to surprise a bear was riding a mountain bike fast through bear country. Being in better shape than my companions, I often found myself riding out front through thick vegetation. I tried to slow down, especially around the corners. Mostly, I whistled various tunes loudly so the bear would at least be ready for me when I rounded the bend.

We met a number of people along the trail (none heading in our direction which made us wonder if our direction was the better of the two).  We ran into two young guys who had been bikepacking (backpacking by bike) around the area for the last couple of weeks (they had seen plenty of bears). We met a large, motley crew of backpackers who were hiking the pass. One guy had cool Specialized Fuze which is a hardtail 27.5+. Looked like a nice backpacking bike with the low rolling resistance of a 29er (the diameter of 27.5 x 3” tire is about the same as a regular 29” tire) and the squish of a full fat bike. As a bonus, he bought the bike from Lael Wilcox’s boyfriend who works in a local Anchorage bike shop (Lael crushed the Tour Divide twice in one season last year and then won the 4000+ mile Trans Am bike race this year, beating all of the men and women, setting the second-fastest time, and crushing the woman’s record by 3 days—needless to say, she’s a bit of legend around Anchorage).AK010-Res gap

The ride through the pass was surreal, high alpine with thick brush above the tree line, patches of snow, and snow-melt lakes running off in opposite directions to Hope and Cooper Landing. Adding to the surreal-ness was the number of hikers packing heat. They would carry guns on holders strapped across their chests. Either the bears weren’t fazed by squirt of capsicum in the face or there were other threats of the homo sapiens variety to be worried about. Once over the pass, we had an awesome descent into Cooper Landing. There were a couple technical rock sections that went really well (Thanks Moab) but most of it was smooth and flowy.AK011-Res gap

Since I was ahead of my comrades for most of the ride, I’d stop every so often to wait for them. Sometimes there were mosquitos but most of the time I became covered with black flies. These flies were unique in that they did not bite.  But it was very annoying to be covered, literally, with hundreds of flies. We did get to see a bald eagle flying down the river and there were lots of wildflowers in bloom.AK014-Res gap

We finished in about 9.5 hours with Mike getting first place in the most-suffered category, riding a 26” full rigid. After a dinner in Cooper Landing, we headed back to Hope to get the camper and then back to Anchorage. Finally got back to my sister’s house and in bed by midnight. Overall, a great ride with challenging climbs, awesome scenery, and NO BEARS!

AK013-Res gapAK012-Res gap

 

Day 3: Riding Around

The next morning we slept in and then headed out with the fam to some nice bike paths that eventually merge with the Coast Trail, a long path that follows Turnagain Arm, the body of water that flows into Cook Inlet which connects Anchorage with the Pacific. We stopped at a nice pond to feed the ducks. Sad faces  were soon upon us as the ice cream shop, one of the major motivating factors for the kids to ride, was closed. Once on the Coastal Trail, we had great views of the sound (but no Beluga whales, who frequent these waters).AK017-Coast Tr

Day 4: Hatch’s Pass/Kincaid Park (Part 1)

Once we pulled the teens out of bed, we drove up to Hatch’s Pass. Like Resurrection, this pass is at a high alpine elevation with lush grass, scrub, lichen, wildflowers and patches of snow. It was very reminiscent of New Zealand. We hiked around some of the lakes but there were other hikes that took you way up around the lakes. A couple was having a wedding out on one of the grassy knolls overlooking the valley. Nice setting!AK022-HatchAK020-Hatch

That afternoon, Mike and I went out to Kincaid Park, which has cross-country ski trails criss-crossing sweet MTB trails. There is probably 15 or 20 miles of singletrack, most of it well-groomed, smooth, hard-packed flowy trails. There are some expert sections but those are just steeper, faster, and larger jumps and table-tops.AK023-Kincaid

Day 5: Kincaid Park, Part 2

Given the threat of rain, Mike and I headed back to Kincaid to get in some more singletrack before I had to turn in the rental bike. Being early in the morning, we ran into some wildlife (NO BEARS). Coming around one corner, there was a moose, a female who appeared to be alone (the other wildlife tip I got was, in addition to startling wildlife, getting near, or worse yet between, a mother and her young was a recipe for an attack).AK029-Kincaid

The moose was content munching and we got a good shot. Then it moseyed on off into the woods. A few minutes later we ran into the same two guys we met bikepacking up on Resurrection Pass. They were ending their trip but wanted to get in some smooth singletrack before heading home (CO and VA).

Day 6: Running

Mostly a chill day. I did go out with Mike for a nice, mostly flat 10 mile run over to Kincaid park. We did run into some more moose, this time mother and calves. She as standing on the trail, not interested in moving. Eventually, we and about a half a dozen more folks waiting for her to move, found an alternative trail to move get around her.

Day 7: ATVs!!!!

Alaska is synonymous with the All Terrain Vehicle, since Alaska has so much terrain that can be covered with the amazing vehicles. It turns out Lenna worked with a PE teacher who runs an ATV adventure service so we were able to make a last-minute booking. ATV Adventures runs out of Bird Valley, about 20 miles south of Anchorage. As we pulled up, the sun was finally coming out (the first part of the week had been mostly cloudy and rainy). We got our helmets and our instruction on how to drive an ATV. The guide asked how many of us were familiar with ATVs. All the guys except me raised their hands (I suspect many were liars!).

He looked at me and said “Where you from?”

“North Carolina”

“They’ve got lots of ATVs there.”

“Yea, I know,” I said, failing my first Alaska Man Test. I was tempted to ask if driving a 1974 cattle truck with a bad clutch down country roads in Tennessee with 30 kids in the back counted.

After he instructed us in shifting (semi-automatic shifting), braking, and throttling, we got our machines (He gave me the only full automatic—double fail!). After a few practice laps to make sure I could handle the fully automatic, we headed up to a high meadow for pics and wildlife (speaking of wildlife, both guides carried guns (shotgun and revolver) along with pepper spray—no foolin’ around). It took a little getting used to figure out how much punishment the ATV can take. The short answer is a lot more than your body can to take. Trails were filled with rocks, boulders, puddles, and small ponds. You could fly over most of the rocks but you paid with jarring and rattling of the bones. You could fly through puddles and ponds but the feet had to be up to keep from getting soaked. I tried to rip through one small pond and soon realized I was create a huge bow wave rapidly building in front of the ATV. Before I could throttle back, this huge wall of Alaskan mud water crested over me. Drenched.AK026-ATV

After the meadow, we headed over to the Bird Valley River. It was a good, bumpy, and muddy ride (did I mention there’s lots of mud in Alaska). The guide went ahead to clear out the bears and came running back. “There’s a bear up there, hurry up!”  We got to edge of the river gorge and he pointed across the gorge. “See those three small brown specks over there? That’s a brown bear and her cubs”. You’ve got to be kidding me. If I squinted, I could barely make out some flecks moving. He set up the viewing scope which hardly helped. Some of the wildlife-starved folks we were compelled to put their iPhone camera up to the scope to get a close-up of the specks. Good thing we have the bear spray.

We hiked further along the ridge of the gorge and the plunged down into the gorge to a roaring waterfall. AK028-ATVIt was more like a curved chute with water churning and gushing out. Down below the falls were these huge king salmon swimming, holding their position. They were red indicating they had spawned and were simply swimming until exhaustion and would die, having done their job. Circle of life. Near the fall, guide had each couple (Lenna and I were a “couple”) sit on a rock perfectly positioned in front of the falls. He used our phone to get a scenic picture. He must have worked at Olan Mills because he’d say things like “Now tilt your head a little to the right” or “Put your hands in your lap” or “Chin up a bit”. Lenna, being a photo pro, met her match as they negotiated different positions, lighting, etc.AK005-ATV

The ride back was great as we both gunned it over boulders and through puddles and ponds.AK004-ATVAK003-ATV

Day 7: Heading Home!

Lenna and I headed down to the local nature preserve for a short hike. One more spectacular view before heading home! Heading home is a little more tedious given the time difference. You either leave at 1:30 am to connect to a transcontinental flight or leave in the afternoon and connect to a red-eye back to the East coast. I chose the latter.AK031-last shot

What Makes Alaska Unique

  • Recycling. Not a priority here. Given the low density of population, curbside recycling does not make sense. There are drop off centers but what do they do with it? Ship it back to the states for processing?
  • Interstates. Trick question. There are none because Alaska doesn’t have another state to “inter” with.
  • Mud and dirt. It’s everywhere and just fact of life. Keeping a car clean in AK is a exercise in futility.
  • Cracked windshields. Question: How much salt does Alaska use in a year for the roads. Answer: Zero. They use gravel. Thus, every car I saw had a cracked windshield. No joke!
  • Spectacular views everywhere. Nuf said. It’s beautiful.
  • Big state. You could fit California into Alaska 4 times! It’s one-fifth the size of the Lower 48, Alaska is bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined!
  • Sun never sets. You feel like the day goes on forever. During the summer, there is some twilight for a few hours each night. The flip side is winter, when the sun rises and sets in a matter of only a few hours.
  • Salmon. This crazy fish has to spawn in fresh water so after they mature in the ocean, they swim up these Alaskan rivers to where they were born. There are so many of these that “dip-netting” is a hugely popular “sport”. You stand in the river and wait till a swarm of salmon come swimming up and you take this three to four foot diameter net and scoop them up.

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