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.