Sunday, March 23, 2008

I rode my bike across Gastineau Channel

Date: March 22
Mileage: 28.4
March mileage: 399.1
Temperature: 35

Well, in keeping with tradition, I spent my Easter Sunday on a close-to-home adventure that I didn't set out to have. I was all dressed up this morning for a relaxing road ride out North Douglas Island when my parents called to wish me Happy Easter. In the half hour that commenced, the temperature slipped and it started to snow. I grumpily grabbed my Pugsley and instead set out for an expected sog-fest, justifying that as long as I was dressed up, I might as well still go biking.

After nine miles in the slush shower I was more than ready to turn around, but at the last minute veered off on the Mendenhall Wetlands access trail. The tide was really low and the sand had set up nicely, covered as it was in a dusting of snow. I rode to the water's edge and etched an arching path along the shoreline. The Gastineau Channel carves a narrow moat through the towering mountains near downtown Juneau, but out here the water disperses in ribbons through an open valley, more like a river than the sea. I noticed that I could see the bottom of the channel all the way across the first ribbon. And the sand on the other side looked so enticing.

I decided that as long as I carefully watched the rising tide, and as long as I didn't begin to bog down in any quicksand, there didn't seem to be any real risk in riding out to the middle of the channel. I portaged Pugsley across the water and pedaled over virgin mid-channel sand. I came to another ribbon, this one a bit deeper than the first, but it barely brushed my shins. And when I reached the other side, I began to believe that I just may be able to cross this daunting waterway.

Many valuable, tide-rising minutes passed in my quest, but after a half hour, I had forged the sandy bottom and rode up onto the grassy bog that marked the beginning of the mainland. I thought I was home free, but my adventure was only beginning. Just ahead of me lay the Juneau International Airport, its long runways, and all of the "restricted area" signs that go along with it. I cut an angle due south and began to search for a way around. Wading through long strands of wet grass, I couldn't ride my bike anymore so I had to run. The back wheel gathered clumps of grass and slush until it would no longer turn. I had to stop often to chip away at the mess.

I came to a deep water crossing - the first in which I could not see the bottom. My only choice was to cross the channel again or climb directly onto the airport runway. By then, more than an hour had passed and the tide had come up considerably. I didn't know if returning to Douglas Island was even an option and didn't really want to wander back out to the middle of the channel to find out. I hoisted Pugsley on my shoulders and stepped into the cold water. When it began to whisk over my knees, I took a lot of short-breathed comfort in my knowledge that I'm a strong swimmer. I wished Pugsley had the same skill. I made it to the other side and sprinted for a levy, which I believed to be an established trail that I had hiked before. It wasn't. It was a narrow, overgrown levy that guarded a very deep-looking pond. Crossing was impossible, so I had to go around. That moment was the closest I came to panic, knowing I'd have to make the deep crossing again, convinced that if I wasn't snagged by the rising tide, I'd definitely be snagged by the po-po on suspicion of terrorist activity.

Luckily, around the levy the channel wasn't too deep. I crossed a final time and trudged through the last ribbons of wetland streams before emerging on the no-man's land of Egan Drive, a no-bikes-allowed divided highway currently under heavy construction. I had no choice but to ride the wrong way down the shoulder back toward the airport.

I was just about to veer off to the safety of the frontage road when the po-po pulled me over. The officer was good-natured enough and asked me if I knew it was illegal to ride a bike on Egan Drive. I said yes, I knew that, and proceeded to explain that I had been riding my bike on the wetlands and become stranded on Egan. "Were you by the airport?" he asked me. I nodded, feeling a lump in my throat. "Do you have ID?" he asked. I shook my head. He took my name and birthday and called my info into the station. I just stood there, hardly caring about the prospect of a bicycle traffic ticket when it was obvious I was going to be arrested as a suspected terrorist instead.

The officer put down his radio. "So, you're getting off Egan?" he asked.

"Right now," I said.

"And you won't ride on the highway any more?" he asked.

"No," I shook my head eagerly.

"Well," he said, looking directly into my mud-spattered face, "you look like you know what you're doing." It was a bald lie, but I appreciated him for saying it. And with that, he got in his car and drove away. I merged onto the frontage road and laid into the pedals. I don't think Pugsley's ever traveled so fast.

I had to ride 10 miles home in a snowstorm following my multiple water crossings. I sloshed into the house, mildly hypothermic but relieved. I felt a little bit proud, too ... I mean, how many Juneauites can say they've ridden their bike across the channel?

Not that I'm ever going to try it again.

LATE EDIT: For Monika

I made a Google Earth image of the approximate route I took to cross the Channel on Sunday. As you can see, it's not all that crazy. At low tide the area is pretty barren, and the constant swift-flowing tides keep the sand hard-packed, so there is little danger of sinking in and getting stuck. But those same swift-flowing tides come up quickly, and it is possible to get stranded out there on a small island if one is not careful.

Here is a larger view of the entire ride, starting on Douglas Island on the left and crossing over to mainland Juneau on the right. I returned to the island by crossing the bridge, lower right.


  1. I can't believe you did that... and I'm sure you realize now that you were likely being watched - that channel looks so naked when it is empty.

  2. You never cease to amaze me!!!!

  3. Damn. That sounds daring. All I did this weekend was sit down and do my studies. Well overdue but never fun. Oh yeah I did take my kayak out the estuary mouth Saturday to the ocean swell to get the feel for how I can handle its tippiness. lucky to make it back in to the safety of the estuary without getting swamped by breaking waves. Friday went mtb riding up Rapaki Valley traversing tussock clad farmland lacking any tracks other than the ones kindly laid by the sheep. At least I did a good couple of solid bike carries, the ol XTC is pretty light tho. must have been a good 3hrs. hope the road race goes ok next weekend given my laziness.

  4. i'm sorta amazed that there is a no-bikes-allowed highway around juneau. is there really enough traffic to warrant that?

    it's funny how embarrassing it is to get caught by the cops doing something silly and harmless, yet still illegal. especially on a bike. enough to make an adult wonder what their mom is gonna think.

  5. Is there a pattern developing here? Seems your little leisurely rides are turning into epic adventures lately.

    Nigity - "Always keep a smile in your heart."

  6. Jill;

    The first word that came to mind after reading your post was a jewish word; hutzpa (sometimes spelled chutzpah) For those not familiar with this descriptive Noun, here's the definition..

    Hutzpa: aggressive boldness or unmitigated effrontery; "he had the audacity to question my decision" [syn: audacity, audaciousness, chutzpah]

    The dictionary editors would do well to add your feat as another example... "she had the hutzpa to ride her bike across the Gastineau Channel"

    Fits pretty well I'd say.

    Also, what a great title for your upcoming book! "Unmitigated Effrontery" Jill Homer's delicious decent into sheer audaciousness and rabid insanity.

  7. You should of gotten a photo of the popo ... but then the camera would of probably gotten you in more trouble.

  8. Almost like a miracle… riding on water… on Easter…

  9. "You look like you know what you're doing" - also a good title for a book. ;-)

  10. Jill,

    I only wish you included a map for your "visual" readers. I never been to Juneau and can't quite picture it. Was it like crossing the Dirty Devil in February, but much longer and colder?

  11. Ummmmm, WOW! You're probably the first person (sane or not) to do that!

    Good on ya, mate! That's aussie for 'congrats' or 'job well done'.

  12. That update is far too tech for me, but at the same time it's interesting to see your route. You are an adventurous soul.

    Where is airport security when you need it?

  13. You had me howling with this one! I had a vaguely similar experience in which I suddenly found myself on the tarmac of Sweden's Arlanda Intl Airport about 30 years ago. Ill-advised shortcut based on dead reckoning through the woods--but it almost saved so much time! I panicked when the sirens came racing toward me, and "outran" them on my balloon tired one-speed. Still not sure how I dodged 'em. I definitely did NOT look like I knew what I was doing, but I might have looked a little like a Red Brigades terrorist. Keep adventuring!

  14. Next you'll be trying something bigger like the Bering Strait.

    I am getting ready, starting to train.

  15. Jill. Thanks for the map update! How very very very cool indeed. You are insane. Keep it up : )

  16. Thanks Jill! What is next? The the Bering Strait? Nome? West Water? Deso?

  17. Jill, thanks for the map. I was trying to describe this ride to my husband. There is a pipeline that was installed across there in about the same location a while back....He reminded me of the story about the newlywed bride who was exploring the mud flats at low tide on Turnagain Arm near Girdwood. She did get stuck in the mud...and even the volunteer fire dept. could not get her out. She drowned in the rising tide....they kept up mouth-to-mouth rescitation under water, for as long as they could. A typical result of making a mistake in unforgiving AK. You might have been really lucky on your crossing. Check it out with some local experts. Remember how recently an avalanche expert just died in an avalanche? Take care....

  18. Folks do cross the channel on foot and what not when the tide is out. Not sure if anyone's biked across it before, but you can never be sure. ;)


Feedback is always appreciated!