Wednesday, September 22, 2010

101 Ways to Die in Alaska: Anchorage to Fairbanks (8th - 15th July '10)

 We arrived in Alaska at the port of Whittier and as we weren't allowed to cycle through the tunnel from Whittier to the other side of the mountains, we had to get a lift with a truck (ute) that could take us and our bikes through the tunnel. Steve, an airman, agreed to take us through the tunnel and then onto Anchorage as well. He spent the trip to Anchorage regaling us with stories of our route, all of which centred on unusual and gruesome ways that people had died; helicopter crashes, bike accidents, someone getting stuck in quicksand as the tide came in etc. All the stories were delivered with little emotion or change in inflection in his voice.

Steve dropped us just outside Anchorage and we cycled in but as we went through the sprawl of city we decided that we didn't want to stay in the city, that we wanted to head into the wild Alaska as soon as possible. On our way out of town we met Cal and Dee, some fellow cyclists, who were lovely and had some great advice for the road – but then they proceeded to terrify us with bear attack stories and with talk of how hungry the Grizzlies are this year. Great. It took us ages to get out of Anchorage, by the time we had spoken to everyone who stopped to chat to us on the street (Alaskans are very friendly).. but finally we made it – our first real day on the road! We ended up doing 70kms, and had our first flat tyre to fix as well. At our campsite we got told more stories of bears attacking cyclists, so we went to sleep our first night in Alaska thinking of bear attacks and with Jules cradling her bear spray and pocket knife.
On our second day`s riding we had clear blue skies and we started to get glimpses of Mount Denali looking awesome off in the distance. Such an impressive mountain towering over everything else around it! Some people we were chatting with at a rest stop told us we were very lucky for the mountain doesn`t come out from the clouds too often!! Well, that justified stopping at a viewpoint along the way for the World`s Largest Hot Fudge Sundae. Sweet.
The country that we rode through on the Parks Highway was pretty amazing, the quintessential Alaskan image from pictures, movies etc. Vast stretches of forest, rugged mountains and huge rivers. Spectacular. One of my favourite days was the day we spent climbing over Broad Pass, a beautiful alpine area with meadows of various shades of green, dotted by the darker spruce trees and all bathed in an eerie mist.
We spent a few nights camped in the western section of Denali National Park (about half way up the Parks Highway) and took the shuttle bus into the park out to the area where the treeline thins out and the tundra begins. We had stunning weather in the park, not a cloud in the sky and views across the mountains and Mount Denali in particular. I love the tundra, the wide open expanses, which also made it very easy to spot wildlife. We saw cariboo, moose, golden eagles, grizzlies with their cubs and a fox chasing butterflies in a meadow alongside the road. 
We had our first moose encounter one evening on the Parks Highway, as we were about to reach camp. We were climbing a bit of a hill and I looked up to see a huge animal towering over the road ahead of us, `Jules stop its a Moose` I said. `That's not a real Moose, its too big.` she replied with conviction `I think its a statue` . As she finished speaking the (real) Moose galloped off towards our campsite. They are huge creatures a nd so beautiful and regal.
We were very lucky with the weather this week with the majority of days spent riding under a blue sky in bright sunshine. We had one day of horrible weather.. rain all day... but it all worked out for the best because four ladies, Nancy, Cyndie, Kris and Kayla, passing us in their vans felt sorry for us struggling along in the rain and they stopped to make us coffee on the side of the road. The kindness of strangers is astounding sometimes! We ended up getting on very well with them and a few days later when we reached Fairbanks we went to stay with Cyndie and Nancy. We had a fantastic few days staying with them in Fairbanks, an eat-a-thon of Kayla`s melt-in-your-mouth blueberry pie, barbequed salmon and halibut with vegies, amazing berry pancakes, Alaskan coffee the list goes on!! We actually tried to leave their house on our second day, but as we packed up our bikes the heavens opened and we resigned ourselves to the fact that we would have to stay and eat amazing food. In the morning of our second day there we woke to the appearance of a tent in the backyard and another cyclist camped out. Brian had just come back from Prudhoe Bay (north Alaska) and, having a strange compulsion to take in smelly, bedraggled cyclists, Cyndie and Nancy had offered him a place to stay!
After our first week (proper) on the road we could look back and appreciate what we are doing. We feel so lucky at being able to experience these amazing areas, and to be able to do it by bicycle where we get to be out in everything, sneaking up on wildlife and camping in some truly amazing places. And of course one of the best things about a trip like this.. the meeting of fantastic people along the way. Oh and the fact that we can eat as much as we want!! In this week we had ridden the 576 kilometre Parks Highway north from Anchorage, had crossed the mountains pass without too many problems, had avoided being eaten by a bear and hadn`t died in any of the gruesome ways described by Airman Steve , things were looking good!

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