When people are dying or faced with the prospect of dying they talk about home–either where they came from or where they hope to return. Which is how I learned a lot about the remote places in Alaska; someone would come in and their story would come out about their village, their way of life, their lineage. I would often nod along as if I knew the reference points they were citing. After I was in the clear I would quickly google to learn where the place was located and would soon find that no roads enter/exited the community. Which is still hard for me to fathom, at times Anchorage feels isolating. Through these conversations it painted a picture of Alaska that is often overlooked on a map. And from staring at those maps it’s also how I learned that there are only 5 highways in the state or at least primary highways, Glen Allen Highway, Seward Highway, Richardson Highway, Dalton Highway, and The Parks Highway (which you would think is after Denali National Park because it takes you there but is in fact after a guy named George Parks, first resident governor of Alaska). In my time here I’ve actually only driven on three of them, The Glen (arriving and leaving), Seward, and the Parks Highway. Dalton goes to Valdez and Richardson (fame of Ice Road Truckers- I think…) starts at Prudhoe Bay and runs down to Fairbanks.
Which means in my planning a trip to Valdez I only had minimum navigation. I convinced a friend, Grande to come, which really didn’t require too much convincing other than “hey want to ride to Valdez and catch the ferry back” and coordinating schedules. The trip is about 300 miles so we figured we would ride Friday/Saturday and then ferry back on Sunday. Only after selecting the one weekend that really seem to work for both of us until July or August we realized we wouldn’t be able to leave until at least 2pm on Friday. That’s fine, we’d probably only ride 100 miles on Friday anyways. We continued with our planning which wasn’t much and really only figuring out stove requirements, tent set up, and potential camp spots. Kevin has never witnessed me prep for an adventure like this and suffice to say I think he was shocked at how little effort I put into the logistics. But also felt like there wasn’t much beyond what we figured out, leave time, stop places, and when to show up to the ferry. I packed my food, which ended up being enough for a week, sleeping gear, riding gear, and a few extra layers. I didn’t checked the weather till the day before because as I told Kevin it doesn’t really matter since this is the one weekend we can do it, we’ll ride in whatever.
In what should surprise no one, we didn’t actually leave Anchorage until 4ish on Friday which resulted in Grande’s husband driving us up the road to start. We shaved about 50 miles off and got dropped off in Palmer which also meant less traffic on the highway. I rode with a tail light and we both had safety vests, although Grande’s mostly put mine to shame but we did what we could to be seen. I still struggle with riding on the highway and even in town, I can do everything right, lights, vest, stay on my side/area but all it takes is someone deciding to look at their phone, drive under the influence, or become distracted and that’s it. We had all positive and/or neutral interactions with cars so that was nice. Most of our ride followed the same pattern, ride, pull off to change gear, ride some more and then figure out where our next stop was. Grande’s husband had connected us with a friend who had some land we could camp on near what we anticipated being our first stopping point. We got ahold of him and got directions and after about 4 hours of riding we turned off the highway and descended down a gravel road that gave us a full vantage point of a glacier. We got a little bit turned around and ended up calling him again to get direction and he offered up his arctic oven tent for us to sleep in. We made it to his property and we were amazed at the views he had, he was working on building a cabin but for the time being had a sauna and outhouse which is really maybe all you need? We made camp in the tent he provided and ate dinner with a view point of the glacier.
We got into bed and then tried to factor what was the last possible time we could wake up without getting into Valdez super late and settled on 6am, both being master snoozers it was closer to 6:30 when we actually arose. We packed up, unable to figure out how to get water from the tank on the property and decided to ride the 4 miles to Sheep Mountain Lodge to fill our bottles.
When we got to Sheep Mountain we also ordered coffees and then we got breakfast but figured it would be to go and then we decided to just stay and eat. I got another coffee and then about an hour later we were back on the road, having only tackled 4 miles of the days journey.
We decided that when we saw a spot for water, we’d stop just to make sure we wouldn’t run out but otherwise the next juncture would be Glennallen, about 70 miles away. I was told that it was mostly downhill but having lived in Colorado my judgment of downhill vs uphill is a bit skewed, what I envisioned was all downhill with minimum pedaling, what greeted us instead was rolling hills and with an overall decline in elevation. It was also strange because the only time I had been on this road was entering and exiting Alaska, and the current landscape was a stark contrast to the last time I was out there, dark, snowy, cold, alone— now it was mostly sunny, some warmth, greenery for miles with mountains on the horizon, and also not alone.
We arrived in Glennallen and opted to stop at the grocery store over the gas station, we took separate turns going in getting food and then sat on the picnic table outside to eat a bit before getting back on the bikes. It was about 2 pm at this point and we realized we still had about 115 miles to go, which was almost comical but we kept joking we just had to be in Valdez in time to catch the ferry which didn’t leave till 11am the next day so really plenty of time.
We turned right out of town, our only real turn of the trip and headed towards Valdez. The mile markers counted down towards our destination which was nice because I’m terrible at math but also at moments of slowly ticking by, depressing. The only thing on this route worth noting was Thompson Pass but we were unsure of where it actually showed up in the route. Grande had done this ride but as part of a 400 mile race and had never actually seen Valdez in the daylight as she got to town at midnight stopped at the gas station and then turned around and headed back out. She also warned me that when you get done with the pass there is still like 15-20 miles of riding into town.
With less traffic we rode side-by-side for most of the stretch and trading off leads when cars were approaching. We spent time talking about everything and nothing, being in the bike industry, work life balance, dog life, and getting back to racing when your fitness and speed isn’t where it used to be, among other things. Really it’s easy to find things to talk about when you have nothing else to do but pedal. We kept an eye on the impending clouds in the distance and some scattered sprinkles throughout the day led us to multiple gear changes. We kept joking that we didn’t care what the weather did when we were riding so long as it was “sunny for the cruise” on Sunday. We noticed some cars coming towards us with their wipers on and stopped to put on more rain gear getting back to riding just before getting caught in a storm, water gushed down filling my shoes with ice-cold water. Everything else remained mostly dryish or at least not terribly uncomfortable.
Once the rain stopped and we had dry roads for a bit I started to calculate how much further we’d have as my feet had become frozen from the rainwater and then the dropping temperature. Hmmm, about 5 more hours, could my feet make it in this condition, unlikely. I have my sleep wool socks I could switch out that would at least get them dry and some toe warmers I could put in so if they were warm would not be worried about any damage. I asked Grande to pull over, we also debated hitching a ride and decided that if I car stopped we would get in. I started peeling off my wet socks and replacing them with dry socks sticking a toe warmer on top before sliding them back into the damp shoe, the wool sock and toe warmer created some barrier to prevent the cold from seeping into my toes and I decided this would be fine. Left with an extra toe warmer I decided to stick it to the back of my neck as a way to get warm blood flowing through my body — only the next day when I peeled it off did I realize why they recommend not having it placed directly on ones skin as I had a nice little burn spot– in the moment the warmth took over and I didn’t even realize it was burning through- oops. In case you’re wondering no car stopped and we kept pedaling on.
We reached the Thompson Pass summit just around midnight but at this point hadn’t even pulled out our riding lights, with only dusk settling in around us. I pulled my headlight out and switched it to a red light to have a taillight for the descent (since mine died) and Grande used her headlight, between the two of us we had a complete set which is more than I’ve had in previous rides. We started the descent and the drop in elevation made it seem like the darkness grew quicker as we were also getting overshadowed by the mountains we had just climbed. Still mindful of traffic we pulled off each time a car was behind us which made me realize how little of a shoulder exists on this side, and also encountered the highest stream of cars in a one section of the road with 4 cruising by us all around 12:30am, which made me question why they were out so late but they were probably questioning why we were out so late.
We got to the bottom and I was met with resign as the mileage post still showed 20 miles into Valdez, what a buzzkill, even with Grande’s warning. We stopped and did jumping jacks to warm up because at best we had another hour of riding and at worst, well longer. The rest of the road was at least positioned on a decline so while we were pedaling, less effort was required, or we were doing less effort since it was 2am. The road into Valdez is littered with waterfalls and the thundering release of water echoed through the canyons as we approached. It was really pretty, even in the dim lighting and made me wish I could see it in the daylight. Grande pointed out which waterfalls were popular for ice climbing–while Valdez is a premium destination in the winter for skiing and ice-climbing it didn’t seem like there was a lot to do in the summer other than hike around.
We finally got to town, or where the mileage posts stop counting and came to a darkened intersection. A lighted gas station was to the right, what appeared to be a giant hotel of some monstrosity was to the left across the water (we realized the next day it was the oil pipeline terminal) and some faint lights were a little in front of us. Huh, we pulled out our phones to look up a hotel and make sure we didn’t have to do any extra pedaling, we found one 3 miles away in the area with all the other hotels. How is this where the highway ends but the town doesn’t begin for another 3 miles. We joked that we only have 3 more miles to go, what’s that on top of the 201 we’ve already done. We got to the hotel and was greeted by someone who gave us a room key and told us what time breakfast was. We made it to the room, turned up the heat, showered, and then both put on our puffy clothes and climbed into our sleeping bags in the beds– yes we had been that cold for that long.
We got up the next morning just in time to get the continental breakfast and then rode over to grab some coffee. We ended up chatting with a guy who started talking about the oil spill (okay maybe I started talking about the oil spill) but he basically works for one of the citizen non-profits that was started after it so talked about how it was a catalyst for changing the laws and regulations in the oil-industry and how there is community and citizen oversight with what is happening from an environmental standpoint. He also mentioned how everyone always said it was a matter of ‘when not if’ the big one would happen. Which took me back to closing remarks on the PIP Framework at the World Health Assembly in 2017 where the chairperson said the world is not equipped for a pandemic and it’s not a matter of if but when. So maybe post-COVID we’ll have some new laws/regulations that foster the development of public health agencies and response to disease outbreaks. But who knows, the Valdez oil spill is 30 years out and the impacts are still being felt in surrounding communities.
After about a 45 minute break and two coffees we headed to the ferry where we checked in, the documents that I had been carrying for our vaccination proof were no longer necessary as of that morning–given that most of my work is on COVID policies I asked what changed, the guy didn’t know but he did say they weren’t necessarily doing anything with them anyways in terms of contact tracing more just served as a reminder for people that COVID was a threat. We got on the boat and took a seat outside with another cyclist joining us and we discussed our approach to getting through the tunnel since we weren’t allowed to bike through.
The tunnel is a single lane tunnel that connects the town of Whittier to the rest of Alaska, there is no other way around. Pretty soon a couple came up who asked if we were the cyclists but I’m pretty sure the gear we had on gave it away. We talked with them for about an hour and then we asked if they would be willing to drive us through the tunnel, which they didn’t hesitate in their response and were convinced that three bikes would fit in the back of their RV. We spent the next few hours basking in the sun, which as we had requested it was “sunny for the cruise” and taking naps after our lack of sleep the night before.
We docked in Whittier found our ride and got to the other side of the tunnel, with a 5am meeting the next morning I wasn’t sure I had 50 miles of pedaling in me but luckily Grande’s husband came and met us about 8 miles from where we got dropped of– I was especially grateful given the headwind we were battling.
I signed up for the Kenai 250 which is happening this weekend, it’s 250 miles connecting the trails on the Kenai Peninsula. It was one of those things that didn’t appeal to me until it did, or maybe Rachel and Grande finally got to me. It scares me (but in a good way, Mom!) because I don’t know what my body will be like at hour 20 and there is a very real possibility that I will not finish– and I haven’t felt some of these feelings in a long time — it’s very similar to how I felt when I first started racing 100 milers like I didn’t know what my body was capable of or where the limits existed (if they do?) and the very real possibility that my body will break down and I’ll have to pull the plug. So it’s a lot of confronting insecurities and uncertainty all while trying to figure out what I’m going to want to eat at hour 32 and wondering if I will in fact regret not carrying an extra pair of shorts when I run into a bear by myself and pee my pants. I keep reminding myself that it’s okay to stop when I stop having fun (and that’s my general approach to bike racing) and that I have more value than my best (and worst) place finishes. It’s strange because I still consider myself an endurance racer but I haven’t done a long race in almost 3 years now (bar studying and then COVID). And I think some of the uncertainty is if I don’t finish how will I define myself, can I still be an endurance racer or do I get demoted to ‘attempted endurance racer’. Only one way to find out…
It starts on Friday (tomorrow-eek!) and I really have no idea how long it will take- anywhere from 38-55 hours. There is still snow for a good portion on one of the trails so that section will be slow going. I’m not planning on sleeping much, beyond a few 20 minute naps if needed and instead trying to push through– but if I do get stuck out the second night will probably try to sleep a few hours and then continue on. I’m probably most nervous about dealing with bears but as a friend who has done this before told me, bears hate Beyoncé so just blast that (also currently accepting other song recommendations). If you are so inclined to follow along you can track me at: http://trackleaders.com/kenai21
And if you’re even more inclined to track me and come find me on the trail to ride with, well that would just be the best! I’m low-key pretending it’s my going away party because at some point I will be leaving Alaska for DC (which, yes will be of a rough transition– no saying if I’ll be able to stay away though so come celebrate at your own risk).