Sunday, June 06, 2010

Sub-48 hours on the Kenai Peninsula

I am officially in manic mode. Never mind that I've dangled near the precipice of exhaustion since my second day of six hours of mountain biking in the Fairbanks heat ... and that was before the 140-mile gravel grinder and before staying up until 2 a.m. every night and before the big hikes and rides and runs and whatever else I did last week. It's all blurring together now. One churning mass of summer sickness. No matter! There will be time to rest when that ferry and/or plane turns south. Time is finite and demands the bender to end all Alaska benders.

My friend Sharon has a cabin off the Seward Highway, so on Friday a small group of friends met up for an overnight mountain bike trip. I didn't have time to shop for groceries beforehand so I frantically scooped up piles of calories at the gas station on the way out of town, the way I used to when I was riding the Great Divide. I checked the clock as we left Anchorage city limits: 6:11 p.m.

We settled in at the cabin and then took off for an evening ride on Johnson Pass, whose trailhead is only a couple of miles from Sharon's cabin. My mountain bike is still in the shop, so I had to ride my 37-pound Pugsley. It was a real grunt to keep up with three fresh, fit, experienced mountain bikers with a fat bike on singletrack, coping with sluggish steering, wide tire clearance, jarring descents and general engine fatigue. I think we were all expecting a short "night" ride, because we thought we would hit impassable snow lower on the trail. But 10 miles and two hours later, we had only seen short patches of snow. Instead, the low-light twilight was chasing us. Even though we had nearly reached Johnson Pass at that point, we opted to turn around before dark came. We returned to the cabin just before midnight.

The next morning we were up at 7:30 a.m. and making giant blueberry pancakes and copious cups of coffee in preparation for the Saturday fun, Resurrection Pass. Again, we didn't know how far the snow or weather would let us climb.

By some stroke of amazing luck, a small patch of sunlight seemed to follow us up the pass. The mountains were encompassed by blurry streaks of rain showers, and we later learned that it rained the entire day at Sharon's cabin, but we managed to creep through a sunlit window with hardly a sprinkle for more than five hours.

Two of the riders split off early and Sharon and I continued on to see how far we could make it up the pass. We talked semi-jokingly about pushing our bikes over the pass and descending into Hope, where we would have ~65 miles of road riding to get back to the car, or we could "shortcut" by just climbing back over the pass for a 90-mile singletrack ride. And the best thing about Sharon is, if we had actually brought enough food for such an endeavor, we probably would have talked each other into it. I love Sharon. She's just like me, only faster and crazier.

There really was still a fair amount of snow at the pass, though. We had already committed to at least making it to the high point, so we pushed our bikes through at least a dozen large snowfields. (I was really hoping Pugsley could take on the June slush, since that would at least give me some reward for powering the beast up there. But, yeah, not so much. Big wheels = slower pushing.)

Pugsley poses at the trail junction just below the pass. There was lots and lots of snow up high. Probably a good thing we didn't psych ourselves up about dropping into Hope, because we would have spent half the day pushing our bikes.

Dropping back into Swan Lake was more scenic, anyway. My shoulders and back felt pretty wrecked during the last few miles to the trailhead. I am truly not a fan of rigid bikes on rooty singletrack. Something has to absorb all the shock, and eventually even the tiniest bumps shot electric waves into my upper body. We ended with about 38 miles and ~3,500 feet vertical.

We returned to Sharon's cabin in the pouring rain. I took a brief respite to shower, drink tea and eat chips and salsa, and then I was off again, driving toward Seward. I planned to camp in the Kenai Fjords National Park, so I went for an evening stroll to Exit Glacier. I was hoping to hike to Harding Icefield the following day, so I decided to walk a little ways up the trail to see what the snow conditions were like.

But it was such a beautiful evening, I just kept climbing. It was one of those things where I was wearing jeans and a cotton hoodie, a cheap pair of running shoes and carrying only a bottle of water (I had my small water pack with me, but the bladder was empty. I was simply using it to carry my bear spray.) And suddenly I was traversing up a snowfield, climbing a few thousand vertical feet, and still the siren call of the unknown horizon drove me forward.

It was so peaceful up there, standing on the shoreline of an ocean of ice, bathed in the soft glow of sunset and eternally silent. There wasn't even a breeze, no flowing water, no birds ... a place where it is always winter. I reached a point where the terrain along the side of the glacier began to level out, and in the flat light it was difficult to tell whether the route forward was the snow-covered mountain ridge I had been following, or the icefield itself. I didn't want to wander out on the icefield and its threat of crevasses. Plus, it was 10 p.m. and, while it never gets completely dark here, I also wasn't carrying a headlamp or important warm clothing or, well, anything. I admit it was a reckless way to hike. I wasn't particularly proud of myself for poor planning (Really, I was the worst kind of national park cautionary tale cliche, wandering around in the snow in wet shoes and jeans.) But I also knew what I was doing, and I knew the snow conditions were awesome, and I knew I could be back in less than an hour. I sat down on my butt and ripped down the slush, a controlled fall punctuated with uncontrolled laughter.

Since I had already hiked Harding Icefield on Saturday night, I had to think of something to do with my Sunday morning. I drove into Seward and had a nice leisurely breakfast at a coffee shop, then came up with the idea to climb up Mount Marathon before I left town. Mount Marathon is the site of a famous Alaska race held every July 4. The race gains something like 3,500 feet in a mile and a half. The craziest racers can go up and down the mountain in less than an hour. I admit in a moment of madness I signed up for the Mount Marathon race lottery this year, but my name wasn't picked. I've heard the race route is brutal beyond belief, so I decided to hike around the back way, i.e. the 5-mile scenic route, which wraps around the mountain and climbs into the Mount Marathon bowl. The best part about the long way is that nobody takes it. The route is still mostly snow-covered, and I didn't see another person until I reached the peak, which was quite crowded.

The weather, which had been rainy all morning, really started to clear as I climbed. It's almost as though Alaska knows I am leaving, and so it is putting on its best face as a fond farewell.

I decided to take the race route back into Seward. And it really is as brutal as everyone says - a horrible, leg-sucking scree field that plummets off the face of the Earth. People run down this? All I will say is there is one lottery I am truly glad I didn't win. Mountain running races? What was I thinking?

The afternoon was blue-sky gorgeous by the time I drove back over Turnagain Pass and around the Arm, crossing into Anchorage city limits at 5:34 p.m. for a sub-48-hour trip. What a great two days on the Kenai Peninsula! Did I mention I'm exhausted? Better eat a couple of peanut butter cups so I can rally for tomorrow. I still haven't decided what to do. If I can get out of bed, though, I'm sure it will be great.


  1. Wow. wife and I *LOVE* your photography and your writing.


  2. You are sure gnarly. Love the blog and photos.

  3. Damn, I had a friend in town this weekend who wanted to ride Johnson Pass trail, but some website I read said to expect knee deep snow only 3 miles in. Last time I believe that stuff. Resurrection Pass trail is no fun in snow. Couple more weeks and I'll be up there on my Blur XC. Sweet ride.

  4. Great photos. There are some mountain running races that you would love that don't involve scree :-)

  5. Love it: "a horrible, leg-sucking scree field that plummets off the face of the Earth."

    Hey, I run (stumble, fall, bloody myself, etc.) in that race--too funny!

    Glad you're taking the Montana plunge. Alaska is the best, but there are a few other places that come close.

    Cheers and enjoy the summer. So much light--how can anyone sleep, eh?


  6. Fresh and fit? I appreciate the compliment but that is hardly accurate for me right now. Glad you had fun in the great weather.

  7. I'm bemused by your comments about riding the pugs on singletrack. My own rigid fat bike is awesome in those conditions - I hardly notice the lack of suspension (and I ride a VERY cush full suspension when not on the fat bike). Your bike should have more traction than any standard-size MTB with those big tires. Maybe your tire pressure is way too high? I'm trying to figure out why the bike doesn't perform well for you. I ride mine on ST with other "regular" MTB riders and have no problems keeping up, and a lot of time have more traction and climbing ability than they do with their skinnier tires - something isn't right if it's that tough for you! Fit, tire pressure, something.....?

  8. I just got back from a 3 week trip to Alaska, the kind "old" people take with their young adult children. One week of a Princess Cruise and two weeks in a motor home. We covered 1771 miles in two weeks. A marathon drive. While there I thought of you and your journeys on mountain peaks and across the tundra on your bike and feet. I could really understand your desire to cover the incredibly beautiful, magnificent terrain. We found ourselves up late at "night" wondering why it wasn't dark before remembering, this is the night of the midnight sun.

    We went to Seward, Exit Glacier and the Kenai Fjord National Park along with many other sections of Alaska, Homer, Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks, and Valdez. We met a young woman biking alone from Fairbanks to Valdez. What an amazing stretch of road. I thought of you again!

    Congratulations on your new job and your new adventures in the Montana mountains. If you get a chance, check out the Big Horns in Wyoming--they rock!

  9. Darn, I could have gotten you your shoes! I was in Moose Pass on Sunday shooting a wedding. Ah well. What a day, eh?


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