Monday, November 16, 2009

Sunday with Pugsley

I woke up late and intended to bike commute to work today, so I set out for a meandering pleasure ride through the Valley. Friday's strong cold front brought 170-knot winds to Sheep Mountain and mudslides to downtown, but it also brought something nearly everyone at city level has been craving — snow.

This isn't exactly what I consider snow biking — it's a soft dirt trail with a couple inches of fluff on top. But it is sweet just the same — the silence and simple beauty of white powder, the brow-furrowing challenge of negotiating well-disguised-but-not-yet-buried roots and rocks. Basically everything that Pugsley is good at, but then again, Pugsley is good at everything.

The Dredge Lake trails always flood in the fall, and they haven't yet completely frozen, so riding around the glacier moraine was a fun mix of powder skimming and "bike-swim."

I circled my favorite singletrack loops a couple times and veered onto the beach, where the sand was partially frozen and firmer than usual despite a blanket of snow.

I veered left and started following the Mendenhall River, biting my lip and throttling the grips as I tried to bulldoze small boulders that I could not see. It was a fun challenge, and I wanted to see how far I could follow the river downstream — something I had never tried before. I have been reading "A Long Trek Home" by Erin McKittrick, who in 2007-2008 walked and packrafted 4,000 miles from Seattle to the Aluetian Islands with her husband, Hig. She's coming back to Juneau for a book tour at the end of the month, and in anticipation of an interview with her on Monday, I've been speed-reading her book, which is beautifully written. It also inspires me to consider the possibility of overland, off-trail adventures in my region. After all, Erin and Hig managed to walk away from downtown Juneau, cross Stephens Passage in a packraft, and eventually end up in Anchorage and beyond. As someone who often feels trapped in a town disconnected from the North American road system, the idea of walking away from here is a beautiful dream.

I followed the river bank until a bend forced me into the woods, where I connected up with a faint deer trail and rode on the soft moss, weaving between trees, through spaces so narrow I could barely fit through most of them (and couldn't fit through the rest.) I thought I was heading toward the main trails, so when I got tangled in alder thickets, I kept pressing forward. Then I reached an impossible bushwhack, veered left, pushed forward, turned right, and found myself inexplicably back at my own track. I turned the other direction, continued for a while at what I thought was mostly forward, and found my own track again, except for back a ways, where I was still riding and there were no footprints. It was impossible to tell which direction the track was headed. #$@! I was lost.

Funny how the simple act of being lost is so unnerving, even when you are in a small area and know that if you just picked a direction and walked in a straight line, you would fairly quickly come to a familiar place. But I was sick of bushwhacking with the bike and didn't want to go all the way around the lake again — I had pretty much already used up my time window for bike commuting and was going to be late for work as it was. So instead of following my path, I crossed my fingers that the river was to the right and pushed blindly through the alder thicket, with snow-covered branches slapping my face and grabbing my bike from all corners. I just yanked and thrashed and swore. I'm probably lucky I didn't snap a derailleur. I did sustain a few scratches on my neck. But I emerged from the thicket to this place, this tranquil beach, with small hints of sunlight stretching beyond the clouds, and the trail entrance in clear sight.

Happiness is forging your own route ... and finding your way back.


  1. Hmmm... my bike commute involves 20km of playing dodgem with cars and trucks, not too mention the inhalation of enough exhaust-emissions to seriously warrant a lung transplant not far in the future. I want your life please. An awe-inspiring post as per usual :)

  2. I envy you with all that stunning sceneary we have nothing to match it here in the uk. I am a Roadie my self but I think if I lived in Alaska I would surely take up mountain biking.

  3. "... and found my own track again, except for back a ways, where I was still riding and there were no footprints."

    Next time: The rear wheel tracks over the front wheel. The front wheel wobbles, the rear swerves. Look for turns you made and see if the rear wheel track overlaps the front wheel track. If so then you can figure which way you were going.

    Yr Pal Dr C

  4. Hi Jill - Keep riding that bike across snow and through water. I am putting together a new 100-mile winter race near Fairbanks: the White Mtns 100. March 20-22, 2010. Ed

  5. That first picture with your bike in the trees is awesome.

  6. cool picture on the snow coverd beach,having had the first decent snow last febuary for years im praying for some this winter,once again nice writing...

  7. I love the first pic with Pugs! Nice frolic through the woods:)

  8. What's your front hub setup, Jill? Single-speed hub/cog? Or something else? Thanks, - Dylan

  9. Ed, that's awesome! Count me in. I've been meaning to visit Fairbanks since I moved to Alaska, and in February and March I should have some vacation days to throw around.

    Dylster ... I have a singlespeed cog on my front wheel in case the freewheel in my rear hub freezes; I can swap out the wheels (on a Pugsley, front and rear are interchangeable), shorten the chain, and keep riding.

  10. Thanks, Jill. Due to the inspiration from Ghost Trails and a few other rockin' folks like yourself, I'm setting up a Pugsley this winter and trying to figure out the wheelset spec's.

  11. That POV shot over the handlebars is awesome!



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