Bikepacking 101 and Bears

“Oh, going on an adventure?” The REI cashier asked me as I handed him my bear spray. “Yeah, it’s called moving here.” I responded.

When I was in the process of moving I thought about bears and moose encounters but they seemed so far away (literally, more than 3,000 miles), but upon arriving here, I quickly realized that it’s real life and I’m playing the game for keeps. The first few days in Anchorage I didn’t really venture out, I mostly moved my things in and spent time in the garage painting furniture where my chance encounter with a bear was relatively low.

I also realized that I can’t stay in the garage this entire year smelling paint fumes. I saw a flier for a bikepacking course, including an overnight trip by Alaska Bike Adventure. Perfect, baptism by fire in bear country. I figured it would serve two purposes I would likely meet cool people who like to ride far on their bikes and it would introduce me to bikepacking in a way that was structured and comfortable to figure out if it’s something I’d want to further pursue (like when I sell my car and ride my bike home). I always felt like it was similar to alpine touring where it’s something I was interested in but not enough to want to spend money on it first to find out.

I’ve loosely thought about bikepacking. After I did White Rim, Sully got me some bags for Christmas, a seat bag and a top tube bag– apparently when you get off the trail at 1:30am with minimum headlights it warrants the discussion of setting up camp or to keep going. I’ve used the top tube bag for a few races but never the seatbag, because that would mean I’d have to camp. It’s not that I’m adverse to camping, I don’t really mind it but have never slept in a tent by myself, I don’t even own one. If I’m with someone else I’ll sleep in their tent or if I’m by myself I’ll sleep in my car, this is usually a safety thing and it’s definitely limiting in terms of how far you can explore without having to turn back for single day solo-trips.

Had to say goodbye to Tenzen

The bikepacking course was modeled after a NOLS course, we had 4 hours of instruction and then a 24 hour trip. I showed up for the first course and found out I was the only one who signed up– 2 guides for 1 Kate is a great ratio. We chatted for a bit at the start and they talked about the races and tours that they’ve done and I immediately recognized that I was going to be in very good hands. The first course we went over gear for the bike, looking at the design and application. From the function and weight of the gear it was apparent that the gear for the bike was racer/rider designed. We talked about what gear of my own to bring. They humored me by answering my most remedial questions from lycra vs. baggies to all things bears (like how close to the tent to pee is too close?).

The next course was me pulling out my bin full of gear and asking about this versus that option but at the end felt confident with my gear choices. The morning of I packed up my camelbak with my snacks, gloves, book, and light rain jacket and put my riding gear in the car. I met them at the trail head about an hour north of Anchorage. Being in the parking lot assuaged my fears a bit as kids were pouring out of cars–surely parents would not be sacrificing all of them to bears so figured the risk must be pretty low. We loaded up our bikes and split some more group gear and took off.

Here we go

The trail was mostly flat but I appreciated that when getting used to the gear being on my bike. I found that the front end actually felt more stable with the loaded weight. We rode about 10 miles out. We pulled off to a campsite and then rode through some trees to arrive at a gravel bar that was on the opposite end of the lake from where we started.

We scoured for a position to place our tents that would offer some shield from the wind and then they explained the bear triangle to me. Basically you position your cooking station and your food storage at the bottom end of the triangle with the tents as the third prong, all dependent on wind position. We unloaded our gear and set our tents up –I tried to played it cool, like I knew what I was actually doing when I in fact had no real idea because Sully usually set the tent up, but they even helped me with that.

We took our bikes and explored the trail a bit more until it dead ended at a public cabin that you can reserve (remembering that for later). Then we turned around and headed back to the campsite to cook dinner. First they showed me how to filter water (beyond just dumping iodine tablets in) and we got 10 liters of fresh glacial stream. Then we made tacos for dinner and chatted for a while because it had started raining and it seemed like 7pm was maybe a little too early to go to bed. Like I said they have a well of knowledge when it comes to long distance riding and racing, so we talked about everything from the race scene in Alaska to training to other races and routes to explore. They were maybe the perfect people to spend my first weekend in Alaska with.

We finally headed off to bed but tied our food up first. I stayed up and read for a bit, mostly to distract me from any thoughts about what my body would look like if I got mauled (do not google images that). The rain and wind had settled in which also provided enough of a white noise to cover any noises I might have been startled by. After the sun set, I soon realized I had to pee but I didn’t want to have to get up and go pee just in case there was a bear (plus it was raining). I spent time convincing myself I did not have to pee until I fell asleep for a bit but then woke up to the realization I still had to pee. I still wasn’t sure how close was too close to pee to the tent but didn’t want to go far so I came up with a plan; I would pee right next to the tent but then dump my extra water on top just to help neutralize the odor quicker. I moved quickly, kept my head down, and my bear spray close. I then dump all my water out but lost my pillow because I had been using my water bladder as a headrest– but worth it if I didn’t end up with a grizzly sitting on my body, right? After that I finally fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning we cooked an egg and hash brown scramble, and drank copious amounts of coffee while taking in the morning fog rolling out of the mountain valley.

We packed up our gear, I was grateful that the wind had pushed the rainstorm through in the night so I didn’t have to have most of the gear end up soggy in the stuff sacks. We headed back on the same trail but I swear it was more amazing heading back.

The mesmerism of the landscape tugged at me and on that trail I realized how easy it is for people to stay here [the tables might turn come December and no daylight].

We got to the end and unloaded our packs to divvy things up. I returned the bags but keep a new found sense of ‘hey, I just might be able to do this’. It wasn’t nearly as daunting as I had envisioned and like the idea of exploring multi-day routes. Still need to figure out the whole potentially sleeping outside by myself thing but baby steps. Through talking with the guides I’ve found that the community in Anchorage of endurance athletes runs deep, I gather it’s from the magnetism of the landscape that draws people to want to explore but with limited access (limited roads, trails) they pursue activities that give them that ability. I even left contemplating returning to Colorado next year to take on the Colorado Trail Race and see what I’m really made of beyond a single day event.

I told the guides that if any of my friends who ride come and visit I would probably just have them guide us on a trip like this (so now you’ll know what we’ll be doing when you visit and you can pack accordingly).

We also didn’t see any bears on the trip, which is good and bad. It feels like the early spring days when you start to venture outside and at some point you know you’re finally going to run into the first snake of the season. It’d be nice to just get it over with running into a bear or moose on the trail and being like see I survived, I can do this…unless I didn’t survive… which would a real bummer. I think I struggle with the wildlife because in our ever increasing controlled and manicured lives, they serve as a blunt reminder of how unpredictable and uncontrollable mother nature is. There are definitely things that I can control (like bear spray, proper food storage, bear bells) but in the end it can come down to simply bad timing. But then I remind myself that I’m much more likely to be attacked by some guy up here than any wildlife (Alaska is the #1 state for violence against women, South Dakota is #2). So maybe I’ll just carry bear spray on me at all times…

Some of it is just giving myself time to get comfortable in this space, I keep reminding myself I’ve learned to live with running into rattlesnakes, buffalo, mountain lions, getting caught in lightning storms, and reminding myself that it’s okay to be afraid and do it anyways.

Nature is pretty neat.
Plus views like this certainly help

I do start work this week so that will in all likelihood limit my penchant for merrymaking. My cyclocross bike did just arrive though so planning on racing this weekend (race my way into shape, heyo!).

If you’re interested in checking out the gear I used it was from Revelate Designs. I would definitely recommend if you’re in the market for bike gear. If you want to visit Alaska and plan your own bike adventure I can’t speak highly enough of Grande and Dusty at Alaska Bike Adventures!

Into the Wild

Into the Wild starts with Chris McCandless selling his car, donating all his money to charity, voiding himself of almost all of his possessions, and setting course on a 3,000+ hitch hiking journey to Alaska. There he takes proprietorship an old yellow school bus and begins his journey into solitude and nature. It’s poetic, appealing, and shocking (spoiler alert!) when after eating wild onions he dies. I read the book once and watched the move once but with my interpretations I take issue with him forsaking society for adventure that for him meant isolation. It seems selfish, unreasonable, and the epitome of privilege to be able to be in a position to even begin his journey. I think there are better ways to show your disdain towards society (like taking an active role to change the problems you have with it) than removing yourself from it. While the premise seems to be that he’s attempting to find true happiness through solitude and nature instead of society; I don’t think you have to completely abandon either to find happiness (obvious a very subjective standard and think McCandless might agree with me on this now). Further, I believe there are ways to be a productive member of society without limiting yourself to a cog in the capitalistic machine. Have I lost you already? Perfect.

We both have ties to South Dakota

I’ve spent a lot of time the past few months thinking about his story. As the approach to graduation accelerated, would my entrance into society result in a cog or contributor or both? Results still pending. Mostly, I spent time thinking about it because I accepted a fellowship in Alaska and hope to embark on my own adventure both professionally and personally. But unlike McCandless I had to buy a new car to get there and in all likelihood will also get a Costco Membership; but maybe like him it’s selfish, unreasonable, and the epitome of privilege to be in a position to begin this journey.

Probably trying to convince them I really will be a ‘different kind of lawyer’

My fellowship is at a health center in Anchorage, on the same campus where my dad was born. Given my area of interest and focus during law school it was an ideal match up. My family is still warming up to the idea. I think it’s a hard adjustment for them because after my rejection from Yale I mostly talked about looking for jobs in Colorado (and I was) so for a lot of them it came out of the blue. But I had loosely toyed with the idea of going to Alaska for a clerkship but soon realized I wasn’t interested in that type of work, yet the appeal of Alaska remained. Maybe it’s similar to McCandless’s quest of seeking adventure, the romanticism of the last frontier, or from my father being born there and me being shocked as a child to learn this (his family eventually returned to South Dakota before he started primary school so we never visited). I was really after the fellowship and it was just a bonus that it’s in Alaska.

For my friends confused by this, don’t forget Canada is in between!

Alaska remains in my mind as a destination of sorts that one vacation just can’t do justice so figured that at least a year (option to extend) might start to scratch the surface of all the state has to offer. My only real hesitation with taking the position is now having to deal with bears, but felt that the cancellation of not having to deal with snakes made it an even wash. And after picking everyone’s brain that has done work or lived in Alaska it seems that bear attacks/sightings are not as common as I had initially envisioned (currently knocking on wood).

As noted before I had to get a different car and while I was really hoping to avoid getting a new one with the limited amount of time (it’s a long story of how the time crunch came to be but telling it won’t change the facts so I’ll spare you) I had left there didn’t seem to be any other option, so after test-driving one, I became the owner of a new car, but it gives my family a false sense of security on my drive to Alaska so worth it…right?

I’m pretty sure my parents were still concerned that I would take off in my 2001 Subaru to Alaska so the day before I left in an attempt to go the farmer’s market with Tenzen I went to start it and it wouldn’t start, the battery wasn’t dead (my normal issue when I leave the lights on for more than 48 hours) but I didn’t have time to get to the bottom of it.

Bye-bye Little Bubaru

I’m pretty convinced that my parents either unplugged the starter or called our mechanic to force my hand. I think my family thought I was exceptionally attached to my old car, which to some extent I was because it came with no car payment and it was the perfect gear box. So this is all to say that buying a new car with limited information (no spreadsheets were painstakingly made and toiled over for months before hand) and time is something that I would under no circumstances ever recommend to anyone. But now I finally have a car worth more than my bikes so I guess that means I have to upgrade my bike…

I’m currently on the road and so far, this trip has been like no other and not just because of the 52-hour drive time. I’ve never felt more like a tourist, with stops in Glacier National Park, Banff, and Jasper National Park in Canada.

When I’ve been to other national parks it’s always been with a purpose beyond just looking around. But it’s been a nice change of pace of not having to plan around rides/runs/find trails and coordinate the logistics. I somehow convinced a friend to drive with me and she’s a master traveler and booked most everything on the way–so I really just had to get in the car (oh, and pack). All the stops so far have been exceptionally beautiful and with the limited amount of time have only been hitting the main tourist spots (Road to the Sun, Lake Louise, Icefields Parkway).

Road to the Sun….

It has made me realize how many people utilize the national parks, and while visitation is at an all-time high, budget cuts result in fewer resources available to those visitors. It’s also strange to think about seeing something that in all likelihood will not be around for the next generation to be captivated by. But as I have gone back and forth with a professor about, on the surface overcrowding is a problem but by getting more individuals outside we are creating more advocates that can potentially serve as environmental stewards and conservationists and work to preserve these pristine areas for the next generation.

Really crushing that tourist game

It’s really been a breathtaking drive and leaves the backcountry beckoning to come explore off the beaten path. Hopefully on the return trip there will be more time to go from trail to trail (now accepting adventure partner applications).

The Alaska Highway is a major route connecting Alaska to well everything else. But in a lot of ways it still feels primitive. The highway is only a two-way with every changing speed limits reflecting the ebb and flow of the landscape. It’s been odd to think that about 65 years ago my grandfather drove the same route to Alaska. Unlike other trips that have followed my grandparents markings this feels more ethereal, maybe because the areas seem so resistant to change that a lot of what I’m seeing today is similar to what he saw during his travels as well. In a lot of ways our journeys feel similar while at the same time completely different. I have the luxury of podcasts, endless music, rooms booked each night, and the convenience of knowing how far I’ll go between gas stations.

My grandfather headed north after WWII, after returning to South Dakota he wreck 2 or 3 cars in the span of a few months while on various benders (can’t really blame him, he did get shot, twice). Much like his generation the effects of war were felt, but the atrocities that the young men endured were never mentioned. Maybe he headed to Alaska to clear his head, get a change of pace, put some distance between who he had been and who he became during the war, or really no other reason than to follow a good and steady job. As I’ve grown older and have lost grandparents over the years I’ve realized the depth of their lives that existed before they had children (as a 4 year-old it was lost on me that they could exist beyond the one-dimension of being my grandparent) and it leaves a lot of gaps that in all likelihood will never be filled. This does, however, leave a lot of room for imagination of what his trip to Alaska entailed—and without cell service for days on this road not much else to do except think about the places he stopped, the corners he probably blew, and if he too felt like he was selfishly embarking on an adventure removed from his family.   

Okay, have I waxed enough metaphysics on you? Well this is all to say I’ll be in Alaska for a year with an open door invitation. Also hoping to write more to mainly keep my family updated on my adventures. I’m still planning on racing and starting to figure out which races I want to come back down for. But as for now we still have about 2 days before we hit our destination.