Will Bears Chase Us If We Cycle through Denali National Park?

Ah Alaska – land of the eternal sun, the last frontier, namesake of the world’s finest baked desert and home to The Ice Road Truckers. With only 6 days before flying out again to Seattle – I was here for a good time, not a long time. So I made a call to trim the fat and head straight for the best scenery the state could muster. I had no idea that I’d stumble across one of the greatest roads I’ll ever have the pleasure of cycling….

LINDA THE LEGEND

Following another nervous cram-Boudcia-in-a-box flight, we were greeted at Anchorage airport by our Warm Showers host, Linda. In case you’re not familiar with WarmShowers.org – no it’s not a porn hub (yes, you thought it), It’s actually a network of kind fellow two wheeled fanatics, happy to open their home and offer you anything from space to pitch a tent and fresh water to a bed, laundry, food and transport. All for free. Best of all, you get to hear about the place you’re visiting from the people who spend their days there. Priceless.

After reading Linda’s profile – I just had to stay with her. This 69 year old grandmother of 6 still thinks nothing of cracking out 100 miles on a bike. She has a bucket list of things to do ‘while she can still walk and talk’ and ticks an item off ritualistically each year. China, the Galápagos Islands, riding the length of Route 66, she’s done it all. After taking up cycling when she was 64, of course. Dear careers advisor, when I grow up, I want to be … Linda.

She’s had over 300 people through the house from Warm Showers. Upon arrival – lovely Linda turned and said “Oh, you must sign my curtain”. “Ummm okay Linda, we’ll er sign ya curtain.” Is this lady crazy? Once you realise that her shower curtain is a map of the world, and that guests from across the globe sign their names next to their home town – it all makes perfect sense. “Pass me that Sharpie, Linda.” Big line drawn out from London. “Anna. (smiley face. Curly hair) ”. Job done.

ANCHORAGE – NOT A PLACE TO CYCLE

As it turns out, cycling in Anchorage is a wee bit dangerous. Accidents are not unusual. Linda had changed her route to work to avoid one particular junction where she’d been knocked off 3 times, each time by a driver who’d left her on the road – in the path of oncoming traffic. I couldn’t quite believe my ears, so I sought a second opinion. Talking to Linda’s loger, Lewis, he echoed Linda’s concern. “There aren’t many places I won’t cycle, and Anchorage is one of them. It’s just not worth it.”

Having spent time in Vancouver, I was beginning to take the London cycle network for granted. I should remember to be grateful that I live in a city where the Mayor is at least attempting to give cyclists a voice. Call me biased, but coming across a town where two wheeled travel isn’t considered to play at least a partial role in the future, feels plain archaic. If you look into Alaska’s history, perhaps it makes sense. This is state that the US has fallen in and out of love with over the years. Its fritted between a reputation as barren wasteland, to a land of abundant resource and untapped wilderness. Life can be cruel to those who live here, and with the highest unemployment rate in the US, you can see how basic needs might supersede the need for adequate bike lanes.

THE ALASKA RAILROAD

Thankfully we weren’t here to cycle in Anchorage. We were headed for Denali National Park. 240 miles north, and home to the highest peak in North America – Mount McKinley or ‘Denali’ to use it’s native name – a beast that stands at over 20 thousand feet. We prioritised quality cycling, and so emptied our jersey pockets to buy a return ticket on the Alaska railroad. The 8 hour trip would drop us right at the entrance to the park and was rumoured to be stunning – it didn’t disappoint. 30 minutes out of Anchorage we were transported to another world. We were in The ‘real’ Alaska.

DENALI NATIONAL PARK

Denali is wilderness like I’ve never experienced before. The only way to describe it, is for you to imagine that someone went ahead and gave the Yorkshire Dales permission to take steroids. They then delicately draped a green blanket over the landscape, gently tucking the material into the folds of the earth. As a cheeky Brucey bonus, they scattered wild animals, swiss firs, bright flowers and lakes over the top – like hundreds and thousands.

A road through Denali, is a road like no other. Ninety-two miles long in total, it’s only paved until mile fifteen. After this it turns into flat packed gravel, gradually deteriorating to full gravel track as you reach the latter stages. There’s no doubt about it. This is road that Frodo took to Mordor. I’m sure I even caught a glimpse of Gollum hiding in the bushes. It winds over mountain passes, round sharp, steep banked bends and through low hanging cloud into the distance. It escorts you silently across vast river plains and swamp land – carved out by a glaciers thousands of years before. Towards the end lies ‘Wonder Lake’ and ‘Reflection Pond’ – where, on a clear day, you can see Mount McKinley both above and in the waters.

On Denali’s road, the only noise is the rumble of your own tyres. Cars are banned in the park and other than a camper bus passing you every 25 minutes or so, there’s not a soul to be seen for miles around. It’s incredible. That’s not to say the going is easy. The furthest we made in one day was 63 miles. Largely uphill and albeit with a few stops, it took us 11 hours. Good job we had 18 hours of sunlight to play with.

I couldn’t have put it better than Lydia – who shouted over her shoulder on the first day “This is a road that makes you feel like you’re on an adventure.” Yes it is.

GETTING WILD

We spent 3 nights and 4 days in the park before catching the railroad back to Anchorage. We were eaten alive by Mosquitos, got soaked by Denali’s micro weather system and put our bear safety and water purification skills to the test . Thanks to Denali my wild animal count is at an all time high. We saw three rather enormous Grizzly bears -one of which was just 100 meters away (Bear spray at the ready, kids). Add to that the birds, arctic squirrels, caribou and moose. I’m giving Michaela Strachan a run for her money. After not showering once in 4 days, we were beginning to get a little ‘wild’ ourselves (praise be the baby wipes. All hail Johnson’s and his balmy packet).

CONFESSION TIME

Now, before I scoot off for another week, I need to level with y’all (I can say that because I’m in America). I promised I’d be honest in this blog. And honestly – following an incident in Whistler, where my left knee decided it wanted to high five a rock, I’ve got all sorts of problems going on in the land of the patella. My gut reaction is to behave like a 5 year old in Ikea.

This goes as follows:
1) Throw oneself onto the ground – preferably on the stomach
2) Flail one’s arms around
3) In between sobs, incomprehensibly scream ‘I hate you’, repeatedly

Having fought off my toddler instinct, I’ve opted for the more proactive, grown up approach. Plan A, B, C and D are well under way. Plan A may mean me spending a few days in Seattle to heal the puppy up (hey, are worse places to hang out). Plan B is to strap one leg to my cross bar and ride one legged for a few weeks (am I serious? possibly). C and D begin to descend into the ridiculous … so I’ll save them for now.

Think I’m leaving you on a downer? Think on. Linda the legend gave me a travelling bear as a parting gift. So I now have a mascot for the trip. He’s a mini Grizzly and his name is Rambo. Rambo is awesome and kicks other bears asses, just for fun. He’s now headed to Seattle and state number 2. Go Rambo, go like the wind…. and take me with you.

FUN FACT
Alaska is the most Northern, Westerly and thanks to two tiny ‘Aleutian arm’ islands which sit on the other side of the date line – also the most Easterly US state. It’s fun, and its a fact.

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