Friday, September 12, 2014

Alaska Part 1: The Last Frontier

Mountains + Sun = One happy Melissa

What can I say, after living in Spain for 10 years I became a fair weather person. Not that it is always warm in Spain, but winters are mild, it seldom rains, and you can always count on the sun shining at some point every day. How on earth does a fair weather person survive in Alaska where weather conditions are harsh, even during the summer. That is, it can snow any time of the year and one minute it can be sunny and warm, and the next severe winds, rain, and sleet. Alaska......why not? It wasn't part of my original itinerary, but after meeting a few people who had traveled up there, I was intrigued. Why would I go all the way Jasper and Banff and then turn around south? Why not continue heading north? Alaska, it sounded beautiful; rugged wilderness, incredible wildlife, snow-capped mountains, an abundance of glaciers......I'm in! Little did I know what was in store for me.

Alaska at its finest on a sunny day

My first day was rough after crossing the border and I had my first moment of realization of my trip: What on earth are you doing up here? But I managed to pull it together. If I could be tough and do Alaska, the rest of my trip back to Oregon would be a breeze! That was my mentality, my motivation that kept me pedaling, that and the cold, the only way to stay warm was to pedal! If you can embrace the challenges Mother Nature presents, the last frontier is an incredible place to explore, especially on bike!

You can't complain when this surrounds you in every direction
The Wrangell Mountains south of Glenallen

Alaska, how do you even being to describe this state? I've never seen anything quite like it. The scenery was nothing new......snow capped mountains, bright blue glaciers, lush green forests, brilliant turquoise rivers and streams filled with the glacier silt, vividly colorful forests with their autumn leaves, and expansive bodies of waters. However, in Alaska it is all around you ALL the time and on an entirely different scale, a grandiose one! Nature, in Alaska, is on steroids!

See what I mean? That ring of clouds encompassed me, but I stayed dry in the clearing

I left the Red Eagle Lodge with my spirits high, feeling confident and determined once again that the Alaskan wilderness was now on my side. Clouds were in the air and I could see storm in the distance, but somehow, I managed to ride without getting wet. I had a pact with Mother Nature, no rain until I make it through Valdez and Seward. She was keeping her end of the bargain for me! Just when it looked like the heaven were going to open and dump on me, the road curved and I missed the clouds. It would start to get dark again, and somehow, thankfully, the road changed directions, avoiding yet another storm.

We LOVED the Red Eagle Lodge, boy did they take care of us!

Tomás, the cyclist who had camped at the same lodge with me the previous night, and I rode together to Glenallen, the fork in the road, that took us each on our separate paths. He headed into clear skies towards Anchorage, and I headed straight into dark skies and storm clouds that loomed in the background towards Valdez. I was hopeful the weather forecast that predicted sunshine for Valdez the next day would hold true. Riding Thompson Pass in sunny skies is a rarity according to locals.

As night approached, I could see I wasn't going to make it as far as I had hoped. I wanted to be as close as possible to the pass so I kept pedaling until dark and decided to try camping in a stranger's yard, that or a bridge would be better than another abandoned building! Luckily there were a few houses on the road, but the first two didn't answer, despite the cars parked out front. Optimisitic, the third time would be a charm! At milepost 89 (89 miles to Valdez), I pulled over at a small house with a truck in front and a light on in the window. I could see an older woman inside and so I knocked. I quickly composed my thoughts, never having done this before, “Hi, I'm cycling to Valdez, but I'm not going to make it to the campground tonight and I'm looking for a safe place to put my tent. Can I please camp under the tree in your front yard?” Linda look horrified, as if to say, What on earth are you doing on a bike at this time of night in the cold damp weather? She would have nothing of me camping outside in the cold. Temperatures were suppose to get down to 25 to 30F and offered to spend the night in her house on her extra air mattress.

Of course I couldn't turn her offer down, so there I was, unexpectedly staying with a random stranger. She let me take a warm shower, fed me, and we had a nice evening together. Linda had grown up right there, at milepost 89 on the way to Valdez. She was now living closer to Anchorage, but was caring for her elderly parents who were in the house next door. She and her family moved to Alaska when the government had a homestead policy to entice people to inhabit the last frontier. They had come up from California, enticed by the free farming land in Alaska. I was fascinated to learn about growing up in the wilderness, trying to farm hay and potatoes in the brutal climate. It was not a pleasant memory for her. When she and her husband retired, they drove an RV around the lower 48 for three years, wanting to escape Alaska, but in the end realized, that Alaska was exactly where they wanted to be and retire, so they returned.

I'm learning that very few people here are born and raised in Alaska, there are a lot of transient residents and people who migrated later in life. Why is that? I wondered when I first entered? now understand why so many people come on vacation or to work a season early on in their adult lives and never end up leaving. Of course you have to be able to hack the ever-changing and unpredictable weather, the viscous bugs, and the rugged remoteness. But the dramatic scenery, friendly people, and unique geography make it more than a worthwhile travel experience, especially on bike.

My view as I started cycling to Valdez

The next morning, just as the weather forecasted predicted, I woke up to beautiful sunny blue skies. After an early breakfast I set off to Valdez. It was cold, but as long as there was sun, I was happy! For the next 90 miles, I had the most stunning scenery. In fact, the road to Valdez rivals the roads in the Ha Giang province in Vietnam, for being the most beautiful scenic rides of my trip so far. Mountains were all around in the distance, first the Wrangells, with white peaks soaring high into the sky almost 19,000 feet high. They were so high it was hard to distinguish the sky and the snow-capped peaks. Other “foothills” followed with a fresh dusting of snow, then more enormous peaks. It was a mountain paradise!

The Valdez oil pipeline, the only cars on the road are the security guards for the pipeline.  I stopped counting how many times they passed me during my 100 miles ride.

It's always refreshing to follow a river at the start of a climb.  The road won't be steep!

The road was suppose to climb, but for the first 50 miles it was relatively flat. I followed the massive Alaska oil pipeline the entire way, the security trucks gave me some company on the road. I came across an unexpected lodge that was open, just in time for a second breakfast to nourish myself for the climb ahead (at least that was the excuse I used). I hadn't tried caribou sausage yet, so I had a bit of savory and sweet treats. The lady gawked as she rung up my order: Two eggs, sausage, and 3 pieces of French toast, topped off with an irresistible cinnamon bun, which I have officially voted as the best on my entire trip. It's covered in a special sauce just out of the oven before the frosting goes on, YUM!!!

Part 1 of breakfast #2.  The cinnamon roll that followed was incredible and I finally tried reindeer sausage, hope it wasn't rudolph!

The Worthington Glacier, a slight detour off the road to get this view

The owner reiterated my luck with Mother Nature telling me, “You are one lucky gal to get Thompson Pass on a clear day!” I sure was lucky! After breakfast, the breathtaking scenery continued. In fact, I hardly noticed the road climbed, stopping frequently to take pictures. I had the biggest smile on my face! Worthington Glacier was in the backdrop for a good 20 miles, and when I approached I took a short detour to see it. Just after that, I summited Thompson Pass. It didn't feel like a real climb, the road was a gradual ascent rather than strenuous and steep. I was greeted by swarms of black flies at the top of the peak, that made picture taking a bit challenging. I had to get a photo in my Thomson Bike Tour vest under the Thompson Pass sign, that was a must, perhaps they'd be up for a Trans-Alaskan mountain trip!

Nearing Thompson pass, I approached the "real" mountains

Thompson Bike Tours, I propose this pass among others and a new trip, Trans-Alaska for only the toughest of clients!

I quickly put on all my cold weather gear and started the 23 mile long descent into Valdez. It was filled with equally phenomenal scenery making me ohhhh and awww the entire time. As the road started to flatten, it brought me through a canyon different than any I had seen before. The Keystone Canyon is lush and green with a huge glacier, contradicting my mental picture of a canyon which have always been dry. In February, a huge chunk of ice was in the river which had separated from the glacier the past winter, covering the entire road. Now, it was a huge block of ice diverting the water in the river underneath. Water falls were also gushing down over rocks, making for quite the arrival into Valdez. The scenery was reminiscent of New Zealand, In fact, Alaska is a lot like New Zealand, or vice versa, the only difference is Alaska's massive size. Nothing compares in size to this vast wilderness, at least nowhere my two legs have taken me pedaling.

Descending for 20 miles I enjoyed the views into Valdez's Keystone Canyon

Keystone Canyon.  It was the strangest sight to see a glacier come into a canyon...only in Alaska!

I arrived in Valdez at Jeremy's house, my Warmshowers host for the night, in the early evening, just in time to join him at a BBQ at his neighbor's house. Like many people here in Alaska, he migrated early on in his adult life, got hooked, and never left. He is an outdoor enthusiast and his garage, like those of my other hosts, was proof! He had numerous skis, bikes, backpacking and camping gear, and a million interesting stories to go along with all of his gear. Jeremy reiterated my luck with the weather, and although I would have loved to stay another day to hike and explore Valdez, I knew my window for seeing Seward with sun, on the other side of the Prince William Sound, was short.

A lush green canyon, it was a delightful way to end a gorgeous ride

Mountains waiting for me at the end of Keystone Canyon

Jeremy's bike.....How do you know you are in Alaska?

The next morning, bright and early, I headed out on the ferry, across the sound, to Whittier. The ferry ride was spectacular with the clear blue skies. We stayed right along shore and could see all the mountains and glaciers and even passed by huge icebergs, some with sea otters afloat. I arrived in Whittier, an odd town, notorious for awful weather. In fact the Alaskans say, welcome to Whittier, where the weather is always shi*#!#..... For me it was even prettier with clear skies and more glaciers to see. Whittier is an “odd” place because it is completely encompassed by mountains, making for no room to develop land. Therefore everyone lives in a sky rise building that looks like a military bunker hovering behind the harbor. Whittier was strategically established to hide oil storage tanks during WWII. It is also the closest port with access to northern Alaska and has become a hub to many cruise ships, fishing barges, and ferries. You have to go through a narrow train tunnel in order to access the Kenai peninsula, a road that was only recently paved so cars could pass. Bikes are still not permitted, so I hitched a ride, easy considering every other cars is a pick-up in Alaska.

Leaving Valdez at the crack of dawn, the Prince William Sound was spectacular because the ferry hovers right by the shore, and I had a clear day

One of many icebergs in the water

From Whittier, I pedaled down to Moose Pass, 20 miles from Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. The riding was almost more challenging than Thompson Pass, with two good climbs, but again the scenery continued to fascinate me and the ride went quickly. Bob, who I met back at Red Eagle Lodge had invited me to stay at his house that night, even though he and his partner weren't home. Their house was like an alpine chalet that backed up to Kenai Lake, which I witnessed at sunset, priceless. I took advantage of having the whole house to myself and the peace and quiet to sleep in the next morning. When I woke up ten hours later, the weather was still sunny, so I set out for a nice long run through the valley. The highway to Seward is another can't miss road in Alaska and famed as one of the most scenic roads in the United States. If you ask me, all the roads in Alaska are among the most scenic! The challenge is catching them on a clear day, but once again, Mother Nature was holding to her end of our deal. Sun accompanied me the entire way into Seward along with stunning views.

For some reason, I was expecting a flat ride on the Kenai Peninsula, boy was I in for a surprise!
The view from Bob's backyard in Moose Pass, simply stunning at sunset

Seward is nestled next to the Kenai Fiords National Park, a town comparable in size to Valdez, but more touristy. I seemed arrive at the prime of it's fishing season. Down on the water hoards of people were filling huge buckets with silver salmon they caught. I spent a good hour memorized by the lines being cast into the water and tugging rhythmically back and forth on the line reeling in fish after fish. It looked as if you could just go into the water and catch them with your bare hands. I had never seen anything like this before! There is a legal limit of 6 fish, which is why it seemed some were giving them away right and left. I should have taken one, but my host told me she had dinner taken care of, so I just sat and watched fascinated. Fishing is still something I want to experience in Alaska, but I had decided to leave that for Homer at the end of my journey.

Seward's waterfront

I couldn't believe the amount of fishermen down on the water in Seward.  They were everywhere catching fish right and left.

There is a great little path that goes along the waterfront in Seward

The views around the bay were unbeatable. Seward is a magical place with the snow-capped peaks shooting straight up from the ocean. I could have done a glacier boat tour or hiked, but I was completely satisfied with all I had taken in on my ride and run the last two days. That evening, I eventually made my way to Linda's house, my Warmshower host. She was a tour cyclist herself and had a lot of interesting stories from her trips to Madagascar, Zambia, Australia, and all other sorts of places. She worked in the fishing industry and had two months holiday every year which she used for a big bike trip. This year she was headed to The Philippines.

I was delighted and satisfied having witnessed Seward in the sun. The next morning, as forecasted, it started to drizzle. Mother Nature had held her pact of the deal and now it was time to get wet. Bob was home in Moose Pass and we went for a hike up to the Russian River. It is an interesting river to to see where fish jump the falls on their way to spawn. The drizzly weather didn't stop us from enjoying a nice hike filled with endless conversation about life, Alaska, and travels. Bob was a fascinating guy who had arrived to Alaska 30 years ago, hitchhiking. He came to live in a hippy community when he was young and never left. Now retired, he spends his time riding his mountain bike, hiking, cross country skiing, expressing his political views in the commentary section of the Anchorage newspaper and working on projects in his wood shop. Bob and I had a lot to talk about. There was never a dull moment on our 5 mile hike or during the lunch that followed to warm us up!

The Russian River, fish have to jump this or if they are really smart, they take the tunnel

He insisted on driving me to my next destination that day since the rain had set in for good and was now more than a drizzle. Although his offer was tempting, I declined. I had to be tough and ride, I had to hold my end of the deal with Mother Nature. If I got Valdez and Seward on sunny days, I would suck up and ride to Homer in the rain (of course I would have ridden deal or no deal). Bob left me and I changed into my rain gear. Everyone in the restaurant looked at me in disbelief, are you really going to ride in this weather? You are hard core! I'm actually NOT hard core,.....but I prepared myself as best I could with a plastic bag poncho and plastic bags rather than socks, and sucked it up.

Double fisting at it's finest, Coffee and ice cream! 

For the next 50 miles, I pedaled fast and continuously to stay warm, listening to music and day dreaming about the warm shower that was awaiting me in Soldatna. I stopped once to get a hot beverage and an ice cream of course, it looked too good to pass up! When I arrived in Soldatna an hour later, I was surprised to see what seemed like a booming place....McDonalds, Taco Bell, even a Fred Meyer with watermelons transported from Hermiston, Oregon, $9 a melon! Just out of the saddle in front of Freddie's, Steve approached me and asked, “You wouldn't happen to be the cyclist that is staying with Matt tonight from the Rotary club?” “I sure am,” I answered! What a small world! My Rotary connection had pulled through for me once again, contacting friends-of-friends of mine in the Anchorage Rotary Club. They had given me the name of another former Ambassadorial Scholar, who had given me the names of Matt and Sarah, fellow Rotarians in Soldotna, my hosts for the night. Steve told me Matt had made an announcement at their meeting at lunch to say they were hosting a former Ambassadorial scholar who was riding her bike through Alaska; random! Needless to say, he got a few chuckles out of his fellow members. Rotary on more than one occasion has provided me with the best of hosts in the most needed situations. In my opinion, Rotary needs to start a hosting program similar to Warmshowers, especially since they are a global organization.

Matt, my Rotary Club host, and I at the Kenai Brewery. What an arrival!  Those were the best two beers of my whole trip! 

I rode over to the local brewery where Matt was waiting for me. I entered, dripping wet, frozen, looking beyond ridiculous, but was surprised to receive a round of applause from everyone inside! They were intrigued to find out about my journey and after the two beers I drank (with nothing in my stomach since lunch 6 hours ago) my energy and enthusiasm was revived immediately.

At home, Matt and Sarah warmly welcomed me and took great care of me. Matt got my bike up on his stand so I could get it cleaned and tuned after riding in the rain. I washed and dried my clothes, my shoes dried out on their boot warmer, and I almost forgot I had spent the last 4 hours riding in the rain. After my delightful (long) warm shower we went out for Mexican food and I got to learn a lot more about Alaska and all it offers to the outdoor enthusiast. Let me tell you, if it weren't for the rain and harsh weather, I'd be sold!

You can't have it all.  Rain finally caught up with me and what is suppose to be volcanoes viewing and ocean views was nothing but a blanket of fog

I should have chilled at their house an extra day, but instead I decided to push through to Homer the following morning, another day of riding all day in the rain. Sun was to follow and I wanted some down time in Homer, where I also had hosts awaiting me. The views riding south along the Kenai Peninsula from Soldotna were suppose to be phenomenal, but instead of seeing the string of volcanoes on the other side of the peninsula, fog engulfed me and the road the entire day. I managed to pedal 85 miles in the rain, stopping once for a hot beverage. I arrived to Homer's famous scenic overlook only to see more fog. Visibility was awful and there was a steep decent into town. I couldn't see more than 20 feet in front of me, but luckily there was a sidewalk for safer riding.

It was a rather anti-climatic arrival to Homer,....I was eager to get to my host's house

I had to laugh, this was a scenic overlook, marked with a road sign with a camera on it.  I could hardly see it in the fog.  Beautiful, isn't it?

I arrived at my host's house and had a delightful warm shower and great company. Charlie and Debbie were a creative couple, this was noted walking through the front door. They had built the house themselves and put a lot of thought and love into the construction . Charlie had been a logger and was very crafty with wood. Debbie was a retired teacher and also artistic, writing, painting, and decorating in her leisure time. Neither were cyclists, but they had been Warmshower hosts for years and offered their guests a neat little cabin with an ocean view. It had a small wood stove, sink, and was nice and cozy. It was just the peaceful respite I desperately longed.

My cozy little cabin in Homer.  Charlie and Deb have quite the set-up for their guests

This was my view, and yes, I woke up to sunshine all three mornings.  Lucky me!

I had made it to Homer, my Alaskan destination. It had been a challenging but rewarding route, pedaling through some of the most vast wilderness of my trip, I had put my determination and optimism to the true test. There was never a dull moment on the road, between the scenery and hospitable people, Alaska was more than worth the extra thousand miles and overall, Mother Nature was rather kind to me. From the Tok border to Homer, it was a rewarding and unique pedaling experience and so was my adventure in Homer and back to Whittier to catch the ferry. That will be explained in the next post, “ A True Alaskan Experience”. Stay tuned....


  1. I've always wanted to visit Alaska, but these pictures have booted it to the top of my bucket list! So gorgeous, thanks for sharing all of your adventures!

  2. Jamie, you guys would thoroughly enjoy Alaska. So much of this state reminded me of NZ, but on a HUGE scale. There were some flies and mosquitoes, but hey, you are probably immune afer living in NZ.