Friday, May 28, 2010

The Great Hot North, part 2

Cyclists are prone to wedging themselves into groups. I am not immune to this tendency, this need to define myself as a cyclist. Am I a mountain biker? Well, not entirely; I ride a lot of pavement. Am I a snow biker? Only in the winter, and even then, only part of the time. Am I a bike commuter? No; I do use my bike frequently to do errands. When I had a job, I rode it occasionally to work; but I still own a car, and I don't make a lifestyle out of commuting. Am I an endurance racer? No; I enter races because they make for fun rides, and train for them because I like to ride, but I haven't been in structured training since I stumbled off the Great Divide nearly a year ago. So what am I? I am a cyclist. This I know.

I often refer to myself as a "bicycle tourist." To me, this means I travel around on my bicycle. Sometimes I travel overnight, sometimes I travel long distances in a day, and sometimes I travel short distances to somewhere completely new to me. I prefer places off the beaten path, places I generally know very little about beforehand, places remote and rugged that require a mountain bike or its even burlier cousin, the snow bike. I like to define myself as a "bike explorer," even if I am only discovering things for myself.

So when I am visiting a new city, like Fairbanks, I like to sniff out unique and therefore interesting routes. This is a strange practice, because all of the biking in Fairbanks is new to me. There are tons of great established singletrack trails here. I have even dabbled in some of them during my short time here (Skarland Ski Trail, Secret Trail, and the UAF trail system.) But when I am alone and have a few quality afternoon hours to spend exploring, I like to set out toward something like the Circle-Fairbanks Trail. It's an old Athabaskan overland route to the Yukon River. I learned of its existence while scanning the Alaska gazetteer before my trip north. It is listed as a "hiking trail, unmaintained." It runs many dozens of miles partially parallel to the Steese Highway. Is it marked? I don't know! Is it still a distinguishable trail? I don't know! Is it overgrown? Boggy? Bikeable at all? I don't know! Let's go find out!

I started at Cleary Summit on the Steese Highway because I learned online that there was an access point near there. I try not to make a habit out of too much online research beforehand, lest it kill the surprises. But I admit I found and downloaded a partial GPS track before I set out. After all, I'm in the far north, and it's remote out here! I don't want to get totally lost. I climbed to the Skiland ski area and rumbled down the steep tundra of a ski slope (brutal on a rigid bike, believe me) before connecting with the trail. For miles I followed a smooth ribbon of doubletrack as it rippled over hills and through charred black spruce forests. Thunderstorms rumbled from the east and I couldn't stop grinning, because this wasn't just bikeable - it was great biking.

Unfortunately, many four-wheelers discovered this trail before I did and ripped it to shreds. The surface went from rough to rougher, and on the swift downhills it was all I could do to keep the rigid, rattling Karate Monkey rubber-side-down. Meanwhile, the thunderstorms crept ever closer and I couldn't help but fret about what a nightmare the trail must become when the dirt turns to mud. I had already bogged down in several low spots, and I knew if it rained too much, I'd be walking. I kept glancing into the tundra for possible bailout points, but there were none. So I let off the brakes and took the horrible beating that was a full-charge descent, knowing that hands and arms will eventually recover from numbness, but the horror of mud slogs lasts forever.

The trail came to a T; the right turn led to more Fairbanks-Circle discovery, the left veered toward the highway and its merciful pavement. The right turn was tempting but I wasn't about to tempt the weather. I turned left, found the highway, and powered the last six miles and 1,400 vertical feet up the road shoulder. The sky opened up just as I arrived at my car. I took a picture to document my satisfaction at my own impeccable timing.

Who knows? The Circle-Fairbanks Trail may be a great spot for a multiday bicycle tour. Or, as the new wave of bike explorers like to call it, "bikepacking." I may never know, but it was fun to discover a small piece of it. John and I went for a short singletrack ride in the evening. Fairbanks trails are rooty and my hands have just about had it with the rigid fork (I finally broke down and took my leaking Reba shock in to be serviced. No new mountain bike for me this year, but hopefully I can bring my Karate Monkey back to a more tolerable level.) We passed by the UAF muskox farm and spotted a day-old, newborn caribou calf. Isn't it cute? I love being a bike explorer.
Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Great Hot North

I am in Fairbanks for a brief biking and lounging trip. I was hoping to do a three-day combo dirt/pavement bikepacking trip, but other obligations require that I stay within cell phone range. I decided to come up to Fairbanks anyway to visit some friends and check out the riding around town. My friends think it's a funny destination. "No one in Anchorage comes up to Fairbanks to ride bikes," they told me. It's true that Fairbanks has large, rolling hills instead of craggy mountains, and it's either dusty or boggy with great black clouds of mosquitoes. But then thunderstorms roll in from the south and fill the expansive sky with color, and the rich green birch leaves flutter in the breeze, and the hills roll toward the remote and wild horizons of Alaska's deep Interior. It's a beautiful place. It reminds me of my time riding the Great Divide through southern Montana. I like it here.

The first night I arrived in town, my friend and I sat near the deck chatting away for hours. The sun drifted lazily toward the horizon, casting streaks of bronze light over the tree branches in the yard. A bright sort of twilight followed and then, in an unnoticed span of time that felt like an instant, the hints of light returned. I glanced at the clock. It was well after 2 a.m. Night is a vague dream here, a nearly forgotten place, somewhere far away. It's summer in the North.

On Wednesday I headed out for what was to be a "short" afternoon ride. The temperature was well over 70 degrees, climbing toward 80. I wiped a layer of sweat from my forehead and smiled at the dramatic climate of this place. The last time I visited Fairbanks, it dropped to 25 below zero F, more than 100 degrees colder. That was only two months ago.

I coasted down the long hill from my friend's house and found the trail marker for the Equinox Marathon, a trail marathon that's held every year in the beginning of autumn. I followed the root-clogged doubletrack as it began to climb steeply up the Ester Dome, a deceivingly large "hill" that actually rises nearly 2,000 feet above town. I reached the rounded crest and noticed the rough jeep road dropped down the other side of the dome. I wondered if it connected to the developed road I could see in the far distance. I bounced and swerved down the loose, heavily eroded track, losing an enormous amount of elevation but hoping the road somehow went through to Goldstream Creek, which I envisioned myself crossing in a rush of cold, waist-deep water before reconnecting with the road on the other side. Instead the jeep road dead-ended a ways back from the creek. I pedaled over the berm and began to follow an ever-so-faint hint of singletrack that wended through the trees. The ground was carpeted in dry leaves and strewn with deadfall. After hopping over a minefield of dead birch trees and creeping around alder tangles, I knew that whatever I was following was nothing like a trail, at least not any kind of a summer trail. Still, it was exciting, riding my bike through the woods, letting my GPS make a digital bread-crumb trail to follow back as I pressed deeper and deeper into "uncharted" wilderness. I felt like a biking explorer. I held onto the dream of making my ride a loop for quite a while. But the woods thickened and the ground became more mushy and I was doing a lot more walking than riding. GPS showed that rather than cutting a straight line toward the creek, I had made a big, meandering S back toward Ester Dome. So I surrendered to the out-and-back, and turned to face the looming climb in front of me.

It was a rugged beast of a climb, much steeper and harder than the marathon side of the dome. I sweated and wheezed and really felt like I was somewhere back on the Great Divide, somewhere hot, dusty and difficult, and nowhere near cell phone range. I reached the peak and rocketed down the other side, because I was already running late for the "real" ride that I planned to do with my friend, an evening singletrack ride along a ridge above town. By the time I returned home, my face and arms were crusted in salt, my three-liter Camelback bladder was empty, my GPS had recorded 4,500 feet of climbing over 34 miles, and the sun was still hot and high on the horizon for the two hours of strenuous singletrack biking in front of me. It's manic time. It's summer in the North.
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Weekend Olympics

Voluntary unemployment is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that you never have to work. The curse is that you always have to work. I spent the hours of 12:45 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. Saturday morning working on an article that was due "Saturday morning" because I managed to burn up the entire day Friday organizing belongings, chatting on the phone, and then going on a hike. Then, when my roommate asked me if I wanted to go see "Alice in Wonderland," I thought, really, why not? On my desk, I have a list of "actual assignments" followed by "definite goals" followed by "maybe projects" and the whole thing keeps getting longer. Meanwhile the weekend comes, and everyone is going out to play, and I feel so much guilt about joining them.

The Friday hike: I slogged through slushy snow and soft tundra up the Rabbit Lake valley and then climbed up to Ptarmigan Pass. After looking at the map, I had wondered if Ptarmigan Peak (ahead) was climbable as a solo hiker in May. Ha! Once I reached the base, my knees got weak just looking at those super-steep, rock-lined snow slopes. But that pass was a beautiful spot to stop and have lunch, and contemplate life, and avoid writing my article.

Saturday morning I had tentatively planned to get as many of my preferred eight hours of sleep as I could post-4 a.m. and then buckle down and work on another "actual assignment." Instead, I received an 8:45 a.m. call from my friend, Brij, telling me about a plan he had to ride to Chickaloon for the annual "Chickaloon Olympics." (Um, yeah, Chickaloon is about 80 miles from Anchorage, and my knees were still burning after two days of long snow slogs.) Still, how can you turn down an event called the Chickaloon Olympics?

Because of the aforementioned snow slog pains and lack of sleep, and because my touring bike is currently falling apart again (yeah, one brake lever is broken) and because the two other women on the ride are actual Ironwomen with real road bikes who I figured would push the pace to something quite fast, I agreed to ride as far as Palmer (50 miles), where a friend was going to meet me and drive the rest of the way to Chickaloon. Turns out the ride was pretty mellow and quite enjoyable, right until the end, after I got a flat and only pumped my rear tire up to about 45 psi and we were running late and the girls threw down the hammer. Still, I shoulda just done the whole 80 miles. In my defense, the Ironwomen also stopped in Palmer and traded vehicles with a man who joined Brij for the rest of the ride.

The Chickaloon Olympics started off on a fine note, with everyone trying Megan's specialty, chocolate covered bacon on a stick. (Verdict: Gross.)

The Chickaloon Olympic events were very competitive and traditional, such as the "Ax Toss," where the gold medal went to a small woman who managed to stick all three throws, much to the chagrin of the many big males at the 2010 Games.

There was the "Partner Carry," adapted from the popular Alaska pastime, the "Wife Carry."

But the Chickaloon Olympics are a progressive event, and all manner of partners are encouraged.

Then there was the "Jandle Race," four people strapped to a board.

The Olympic Village, up on a bluff overlooking a 360-degree view of two huge mountains and a lake. And this is actual private property, owned by young professionals who live in Anchorage. Makes one wonder if being gainfully unemployed and transient is really the best way to go.

Brij won his own medal for being the only person to ride the whole distance to Chickaloon the day of the event. Two limes on a string. I wonder if they are supposed to represent anything?

Sunday I joined up with another group of cyclists for mountain biking in the Mat-Su Valley. The trails were dusty and dry, but well-built and fun. I don't love trail system mountain biking (I really like the purposeful feeling of "going somewhere" rather than pedaling around a series of small loops.) But I'm really hoping to do a lot more riding like this during the summer as I prepare for Trans Rockies. My technical skills could use a lot of work. But for now, I can still blame my former location ("We don't even have singletrack in Juneau," which is mostly true) and my high-mileage rigid mountain bike, which is falling apart in many of its own ways. (Are you sensing a theme here? I need new bikes but I'm unemployed. Boo.)

It was a completely unproductive weekend, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Friday, May 21, 2010

The World You Love

When I feel I need space to reflect, I go to the mountains. It's not that I'm more perceptive or smarter in the mountains. It's actually the opposite - my quads are on fire and my throat is sore from breathing so hard and my feet are numb from hours of wallowing in slush and my eyes are fixed on this scary-looking traverse up ahead and these things fill out the entirety of my attention span. But it's in this head-spinning malaise that I occasionally look up ... at the sky, at the clouds, at the mountain, and say, "Ah, I see."

I'm looking for space to think. I pull out a map. Where can I go that will fill up the better part of an afternoon - a place secluded, and scenic, and even challenging, but not so challenging I either can't do it or succumb to blind anxiety while thinking about it? The map is a blank document to me. I don't know any of these places. They're all completely new, unknown. I feel a fluttering of excitement. I can go anywhere, but I have to make a choice. I could choose wrong. But I won't know until I go. This place looks good. At least, it looks good on a map. Bold Ridge. I load up my bike, travel to Eklutna Lake, and pedal beside the wending shoreline.

I stash the bike where the sign says "No Bikes," about five miles in. I can't believe how far summer has come since I was here last, just a week ago. Today there are baby leaves on all the trees, and the ice is gone, and the sun is burning an orange glare in my retinas. Hot day. But summer's not yet far along enough to kill off the snow, which starts about 1,000 feet up the mountain. The snow's rotten - knee to thigh-deep, and for weeks it's been churning in a melt-freeze cycle until it's no longer snow. It's shaved ice, like a snowcone, collapsing and solidifying with every knee-torturing step. I wasn't really expecting this much snow this low. I don't have much to fight it but this ice ax, which I use even on low-angle ground, driving it into the shaved ice and pulling back until the ax catches, so I can leverage myself out of my own body hole. Every step is exhausting and slow. I think often about giving up on Bold Ridge. Then I just laugh at myself. What I'm doing is ridiculous and pointless. But sometimes we have to do ridiculous and pointless things to make the rest of life more meaningful.

Finally I claw my way above treeline, still wallowing in slush, but now purpose has arrived. Time to traverse this ridge, moving forward until my fragile, clumsy body and its many limitations won't let me go any farther. And in the meantime, I'll travel through a limitless maze of thoughts.

I wonder if Bold Ridge has any insights. This place feels comforting to me, familiar, so much so that I have to keep reminding myself I'm in the Chugach, not the Southeast. "There was this ridge in Juneau I used to have conversations with," I say, not out loud, but the mountain's listening. "It's called Thunder Mountain. It's a great ridge, L-shaped, and if you stand on top of its hinge, you can see all of Juneau, all the way from the tip of Thane to the edge of the Mendenhall Valley, and all the places beyond. It's a good place to get a sense of where you are and where you've been. And the wind never seems to blow there, even if there are gales downtown. Everytime I went there, I never wanted to leave."

Bold Ridge responds in a gentle gust of wind and a the low throat-singing of a ptarmigan. There's a roar in the distance - too close to be a plane, too far to be Bold Ridge. I meander through my thoughts. "What do you think?" I ask the mountain. I listen to a thick, echoing silence. "Yeah, Thunder Mountain never answered, either."

I reach the place I'd been searching for, the point of no return. From here the ridge sharpens to an almost impossible knife before cutting a razor-edged ramp to the sky. That's Bold Peak. Not the place for walkers, and not the place for me. I sit on the tundra and let the mountain's silence surround me. It lasts only a few seconds before a thunder crack pierces the air. I jerk my neck back in time to catch a curtain of powder cascading down the face. The thin-ribbon avalanche continues to pour over the rocks like a waterfall, tumbling small boulders along the way.

I watch the avalanche for a while, small but persistent - as though the snow had been transformed to water, gushing and flowing in an unstoppable quest for gravity. Another forms along the west face. Bold Peak is angry today. I smile with new understanding. It's summer. Things are changing. They're always changing. I pick up my array of hiking weapons - my ax, my bear spray, my Kit-Kat bars, and turn around.

Sometimes, when I am uncertain which direction to go, I ask the universe to weigh in. Mountains never answer, and even if they do, they're never specific. I pull out my iPod. Like opening a book to a random page, sometimes I put my settings on "shuffle all" and wait for the wisdom of one in 1,687 songs. iPod opens with "No Cars Go," by Arcade Fire ...

We know a place no planes go
We know a place no ships go
Hey! No cars go.

I laugh. "That's true, but, I'm just not sure what you're trying to say." I hit the next button. One more try.

And then, "The World You Love" by Jimmy Eat World.

I fall asleep with my friends around me
Only place I know I feel safe
I'm gonna call this home
The open road is still miles away
Hey nothing serious
We still have our fun
Or we had it once
But windows open and close that's just how it goes.

Don't it feel like sunshine after all?
The world you love, forever gone.
We're only just as happy, as everyone else seems to think we are.

I find myself singing along. I drop back into the slush slog. I drag myself on my butt when I get tired of postholing. I'm panting and my head's spinning again. I forget all about interpreting my song, and all the other songs after that. I just want to get down, find food, something that's not a Kit Kat bar. I stumble onto dirt and descend back to bright green summer. It's evening now, and the mosquitoes are out with a vengeance. I start running, and transition to the bike without even taking the time to stick my ax back on my pack. It dangles from my hand as I hammer toward home. Then iPod hits a glitch, and even though only about a dozen songs have passed, the song comes on again - "The World You Love." I glance back at Bold Peak, washed in peach light, and there it is - the world I love.

Maybe it all really is just random.
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Blog interview

Recently a guy named David, who works with a T-shirt company called Adayak, interviewed me for a people feature on the company blog. I've had my nose to the grindstone since I got back from Denali and haven't had time to do much else, so I hope he doesn't mind if I post the questions on my own blog.

Your hometown is just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. How did you end up in Alaska?

I'm the worst kind of cliche for an Alaska woman - I followed a man here. My former boyfriend talked me into moving up in 2005. We traveled through the state in summer 2003 and both fell in love with the landscape and the culture, but I was reluctant to move up because I feared the cold and isolation. I remember saying to him, "What in the world am I going to do all winter long?" That was before I discovered snow biking. The relationship didn't work out but I'm glad living in Alaska - and loving winter - did.

Where did your passion for cycling come from? Did your family encourage you to ride or did you pick it up on your own?

I was like most suburban kids. I only rode my bicycle when my parents refused to drive me to my friends' houses. I didn't own a bicycle as an adult until I was 22 years old. My (now ex-boyfriend) and I were driving home from a camping trip in Moab, Utah, one Sunday afternoon when I saw a bicycle tourist riding up Spanish Fork Canyon. I said, "Wouldn't it be fun to travel around on a bicycle?" That set a plan in motion a bicycle tour around the Four Corners area. I bought a touring bike and spent the summer "practicing," which I later relented to calling "training." Our two-week tour in September 2002 took us all around the mountains and deserts of Southeastern Utah and Southwestern Colorado. I came home from that trip completely hooked.

You wrote a book titled Ghost Trails. Did you always aspire to write a book or did it come about by accident.

I still have a paper I wrote when I was in first grade titled "Where I will be in the Year 2000." I wrote that I would be 21 years old and probably in college, where I was going to study writing because "I want to be a writer and write books." As an adult, I swung that aspiration toward a career in journalism, but the desire to be an author has been there since I learned my ABC's.

You have been blogging on Up in Alaska since 2005 - that's a long time! How do you find inspiration and new topics to keep the blog updated?

With my blog, it isn't hard because I just write about my life and I'm always out there living my life. I appreciate interest and input from readers, but I'm being honest when I say that I write my blog for my own benefit. I love looking back at old posts: the pictures, memories and insights into how I've changed. It is my journal, only online and public. If it grabs people's interest, great. The blog has put me in touch with some of the best people I've ever met.

Is there anything that blogging provides you that writing newspaper articles or authoring a book doesn't?

Well, blogs are a stream-of-consciousness kind of forum, usually unedited, so they generally feature a much more raw and honest form of writing. Plus, there's no limit on the things you can write about. Newspaper articles and books aim to be more commercial, so they have to cater to the interests of larger audiences. On my blog, I could write about the kinds of mustard I have in my fridge if I wanted to. That doesn't mean anyone is going to read it, but I could.

The pictures of Alaska on your blog are incredible - they alone probably keep a lot of your readers coming back for more. Is photography a hobby for you, or do you just point and shoot? What type of camera do you use?

I'm pretty sure my blog has a lot of "readers" that never actually read a word. I like to say that Alaska is like a supermodel - it's hard to take a bad picture of it. Right now I just use a point-and-shoot, an Olympus Stylus Tough, to document my activities. But the act of just shooting pictures in order to preserve memories has generated more of an interest in photography itself, and I am looking to upgrade my camera.

What is the longest race/ride you've ever completed?

The Tour Divide, a 2,740-mile mountain bike race along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, which spans the Continental Divide from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. The race took me 24 days, and until this year's race begins on June 11, I still hold the women's record (which will likely be broken this year.)

Have you ever been on a ride and been stuck in a terrible situation? Maybe you've been lost, come face to face with a grizzly bear, or almost fallen off a cliff? You did recently get pretty close to a porcupine!

Porcupines are a real hazard! They're low-profile, and they saunter onto trails and don't move all that quickly away. You really have to watch out for them if you don't want to end up with a tire and legs full of quills. That said, I've only been in bicycle situations that felt terrible at the time, but in hindsight were just scary or uncomfortable: Completely bonking at 2 a.m. in an extremely remote canyon in Alaska when the temperature was 20 below (during the 2008 Iditarod Trail Invitational), or being exposed to a horrific electric storm on a high Colorado pass during the Tour Divide. But I've always gotten through unscathed.

What type of bike do you ride?

I ride a 2007 Surly Pugsley as a snow bike, a 2008 Surly Karate Monkey as a mountain bike, and a 2004 Ibex Corrida as a touring bike.

Something a little more fun - what's your favorite movie, TV show, and book of all time?

I love "Office Space." That is quite possibly my favorite movie of all time, although I haven't given that subject a lot of thought. My favorite author is Thomas Wolfe. His books really form one long semi-fictional autobiography, and I love those.

If you could go on a cycling trip anywhere in the world - where would you go?

For years I have aspired to travel across Mongolia on my bicycle. Someday I am going to do it. I'd also love to ride in Antarctica, although that requires major bucks I'll likely never have.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pictures of Denali

On Friday, I traveled with my friend Carlene up to Denali National Park. As we packed up her car in Palmer, I realized that I forgot my camera - actually forgot my camera. I debated driving all the way back to Anchorage to retrieve it, but decided two extra hours of travel when we already had a late start was not worth it. I did remember an old digital camera that I keep wedged in my the trunk of my car for camera emergencies. Its lens is heavily scratched, so not only do most pictures end up blotchy, but it has a difficult time focusing. Also, it had no memory card. I stopped and bought one in Wasilla, and headed for my long weekend in Denali.

We arrived, set up camp, and traveled into the park in the evening. It was after 7 p.m., but the sun doesn't set until after 11 and twilight lingers throughout the short night, so our late arrival didn't stop us from going on a hike and an 18-mile bike ride before our 1 a.m. "dinner." In this photo, Carlene is expressing her extreme discomfort with walking down the talus in heavy wind blasts hitting from direction of that road in the background. I said, "In Juneau, it's like this all the time on ridges around town." And while that's true, I didn't tell Carlene that the 50-60 mph gusts were nearing the edge of my own comfort zone.

On Saturday we joined up with Carlene's partner, Pat, and friends Julian and Tom for a ride up the Denali Park Road, which is still closed to vehicles and tour buses. Although I pitched this trip to Carlene before I knew anything about the park road schedule, it turned out this was the last weekend it was still closed, so this is the weekend dozens of mountain bikers chose to hit it. We again got a late start and had the pleasure of greeting a steady stream of fellow mountain bike tourists on their way back to Teklanika.

The weather was OK - cold and windy with temperatures in the 40s and 15-30 mph winds that drove the windchill down to consistently uncomfortable levels. But the sun occasionally came out and we never got rained on, so in the end it was a great day for a ride.

We saw a lot of animals. We tallied 12 grizzly bears over the course of our ride - seven adults and five cubs, including two sets of spring twins. This is unfortunately the best bear photo I got (yes, I was regularly cursing my lack of professional-grade camera, let alone the fact that I had bicycled all the way into Denali with only an emergency camera.) Since you probably can't see them, they're the two brown dots in the bottom center. Still, we had a good set of binoculars to watch the bears, and frankly, I was glad they remained well out of the range of my camera.

Other animals were not quite as camera-shy as the bears.

Eventually our group broke up and three of us climbed two passes, dropped to the Toklat River and began to climb a third before there was a vote of two out of three to turn around (guess which vote was mine.) We ended up with 53 miles total. I really hope to go back this summer and ride the entire park road.

Pat riding up Polychrome Pass.

The views to the south consistently looked like this.

Pat at the top of our second ascent of Sable Pass, under the first direct sunlight of the day. He might be smiling about the sun, but more likely, he's smiling because it's all downhill from here.

Me, though, I'm smiling at the sun.

Sunday morning, I woke up early with the daylight and killed a couple pre-breakfast hours with a ride up to mile 11 of the Park Road and back. Denali is still experiencing the pre-spring season, which is always the ugliest time of the year. But there is something subtly beautiful about the washes of gray and brown - beautiful, if not photogenic.

Sunday afternoon hike up to Primrose Ridge, back to the wind and cold.

Photographs just do not convey wind and cold. I wish they could.

We found a bit of a wind block in the form of a rock outcropping, and sat for 20 minutes looking out over the Stampede Trail and the deeper Interior as I dropped hints that I would really rather start jogging to warm up my numb toes and not sit around pretending it's summer.

The people with jobs had to head back Sunday afternoon. Carlene and I decided to spend one more day traveling with Tom out the Denali Highway, a 135-mile gravel road that traverses the high plains beside the eastern Alaska Range.

It is very "Wyoming" up there.

We set up camp on a bluff above the Susitna River. Tom set up his spotting scope and we watched a herd of caribou on the gravel bars. Later, Carlene spotted a sow grizzly and young cub high up the mountain behind us. For an hour we took turns watching the two bears crawl up steep talus and snow fields. I was enthralled by the bear "mountaineers," and the scope gave us a clear view of the sow turning around to bark orders at her cub. They bedded down for the night on a thin ledge high up the mountain. Tom theorized that the bears were fresh out of their den, and traveled on the mountain to seek protection from potential predators (including humans. It is grizzly season right now. Although humans aren't allowed to shoot sows with cubs.)

I watched the evening light flicker across the valley. It was becoming late. How late? I don't know. You start to lose track of the time up there.

I headed out for a sunset ride on an abandoned mining road up Valdez Creek. The animals along the route were abundant and bold. This porcupine actually charged me. I swear it did. I'm still convinced it would have tackled me if I didn't lunge at it with my bike, and even then, it only retreated a few inches and then turned around to hold its ground. I skirted wide and slowly around it.

I rode until I encountered a cow moose and calf on the road.

The rode back as the sunset cast its rich pink light on the landscape.

Evening sunset. 11:04 p.m.

Where I was standing on the plateau, watching the sunset, a couple of caribou circled a wide loop around me and then stopped halfway around a second loop, only about 150 feet away, and stared at me. Their behavior was intriguing, and downright spooky. I thought, "Are these caribou stalking me?" I got back on my bike and continued down the road. I dropped into a steep ravine and encountered a cow moose standing in the middle of the road. I stopped 200 feet short and yelled loudly, and still she held her ground. There was no way around her. I walked forward another 15 feet. She did not budge. I stood silently and observed little details about her, from an extra-long waddle hanging down from her neck, to a large scar slashed across her shoulder. I wondered if she had a calf nearby. I began to fret about how I might crawl out of the ravine if she did not leave. Finally, she got bored and trotted away. It may seem I had a lot of animal-anoia during this ride, and that's probably true. But I still think those animals of Valdez Creek were especially unafraid and even aggressive.

The next morning, I woke up feeling groggy, wind-dried and admittedly anxious to get home despite the beautiful weather. Carlene and Tom were a bit slow to get going in the morning, and then the spotting scope came back out. I don't really like sitting around during the morning, whether I'm camping or not, so I said, "Well, I'll go for a ride and meet you guys down the road." I thought the ride would last an hour, maybe two, tops. I packed a liter of water and two granola bars (and, yes, I should know better to be a little more prepared when cycling in such a remote region.) I rode four miles down the road where we camped and entered the Denali Highway at mile marker 80, pedaling east into a fierce headwind. I climbed out of the Susitna River Valley and into the high, rolling tundra above treeline. It's been a dry spring and the dusty, windswept plains filled me with eerie memories of the Great Divide Basin. I kept climbing and descending, the temperature kept dropping, and the mile markers kept rolling by. I drank all my water. I ate both my granola bars. I started to become a little concerned. Then a little more concerned. Carlene and Tom are good people, but I didn't actually know them very well. What if they never showed up? I'd have to pedal myself all the way to Paxon, still 50 miles and a big pass away. I at least had my emergency iodine tablets with me; that was a relief. But I really wished I had food, and extra layers. I was already bonking and starting to feel the chill. It was going to be a long uncomfortable trip to Paxon at best. Finally, at mile marker 41, I came to the McMurren Lodge - a little oasis of salvation in the vast tundra. Luckily I had my wallet with me, so I was able to order hot coffee and a huge pitcher of water and lunch as I waited for my friends to show up, a full half hour after I arrived at the lodge and four and a half hours after I left camp. Turns out they spent the early afternoon stopping along the side of the road and setting up the scope to watch animals. When I told them that I hadn't really expected my hour-long relaxing morning ride to turn into 45 miles into a cold headwind, they said, "Oh, we thought it didn't matter because you do this kind of stuff all the time." I wanted to point out that I like to make my own decisions about the "epic" factor of my rides, but I already had food and water in my belly, so it was easier just to laugh it off.

This trip was a fun escape, and in its own way a very long four days. It was strange to come home after a weekend away from cell phone range to several "heart-fluttering" kinds of voice messages - the kind that jolt you out of your own little world and make you wonder if all of it could actually change, and fast. The first involves progression on something that might be a dream job of mine, but that would involve moving away from Alaska. The second involves progression on moving my book project toward a commercial venue, but involves really hunkering down in the next two days and polishing up materials I genuinely thought I would not have to produce for many more weeks. The third I don't really need to talk about on my blog, but yes, it is strange how my own life can move along without me. It makes me wistful to just remain in the simple world that holds cold winds, remote ridges and infinite possibilities - the world of Denali.