“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.
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.
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.
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!