Downpour on the Kenai Peninsula

…continued from Part 2: Last Minute Century on Alaska’s Glenn Highway

I had just over a week left in Anchorage and was starting to get tired of the place. I had seen everything that was interesting about the city, and was at the point where it was time to either stay and make new friends, or move on. Nonetheless, I had one bike trip left that I wanted to do before leaving: A two day tour up the Kenai Peninsula from Seward to Anchorage.

From Anchorage, the Seward Highway goes south for 128 miles, passing southeast along the shores of the Turnagain Arm for the first half of the drive, and then going south through the Kenai Mountains for the other half, and stopping in the port town of Seward. The Alaska Railroad has a line that goes straight there from Anchorage early in the mornings. My plan was to take my bike down there on the train and spend the next two days cycling back up the highway.

The problem was that almost every single day had rain in the forecast, and I really didn’t feel like riding on cold, wet roads. That, and I was hoping for a good sunny break like I got up in Denali. As I’ve said already, Alaska is beautiful regardless, but only during clear sunny weather do you get to enjoy the scenery to its fullest.

Unfortunately, in the summer, coastal Alaska tends to be cloudy and rainy just about all the time. So I waited a few days, spent some time on short day rides in the forest parks around Anchorage, got work done in my hotel room, screwed around and wasted time.

I went up to the trailhead of Flattop Mountain one afternoon on my bike. It stands right at the edge of the Chugach Mountains east of town, and is a popular day hike spot for the locals. What I didn’t realize was how steep the climb was to get up there, and was actually pretty well beat up by the time I reached the parking lot by the trailhead. The mountain was covered in clouds, so climbing to the summit just to look at fog seemed kind of pointless. I got a few pictures of the valleys around and went back down to Anchorage.

I finally got my train ticket to Seward a day or two later. There was a 30% chance of rain in the forecast, but with three days to spare before flying home, it was now or never. I rode to the station early the next morning, checked in my bike, and boarded the train.

To say the least, the Alaska Railroad was impressive enough for me to recommend to any visitor. Many of the train cars had upper decks with glass dome ceilings, allowing tourists to sit and view one breathtaking panorama after another. As soon as the train started, people scurried to the upper decks to get good seats for the ride southeast. Knowing that I was going to see all the same places the next day on my bike anyway, I didn’t bother to join.

We went southeast along the Turnagain Arm, a large inlet that flows between the Kenai Peninsula and the Chugach Range. The Kenai Mountains and the remote town of Hope, Alaska stood five miles to the south across the water. Five miles as the eagle flies, and ninety if you want to drive there. Up ahead, the morning sun broke out of the clouds, casting gold onto the water. The announcer pointed out some dall sheep high on a ridge to the left.

I got breakfast in the dining car and slept for an hour. I woke up and noticed that we were already somewhere in the Kenai Range, parting ways with the Seward Highway and climbing up over the next mountain pass to the east. The forests in this part of the state were darker, denser, more lush and enchanting, and were part of a temperate rainforest that spans from that area to the southeast and down Alaska’s panhandle. In this climate, conifers can grow for longer seasons than those of the boreal forests throughout Alaska’s interior. I looked out at the land, and clouds hung low over the valleys, reminding me of the woodlands of the Pacific Northwest. It was a dreary, charming landscape.

We went along a cliff, through a tunnel, past a waterfall, and stopped on the announcer’s word along the facing ridge of Spencer Glacier, whose blue ice had carved a steep, mile wide valley into the earth.

The train rejoined the highway, where I planned to ride that day, and made its final descent through the dense forests to the depot in Seward.

Seward is a beautiful place. A small fishing town along the rugged coastline of the Kenai Peninsula, it sits on the western side of Resurrection Bay, which flows south between mountains and islands for twelve miles before reaching the open ocean. To the east and west, there is nothing for hundreds of miles but a rugged glacial coastline and an occasional fishing town or village. Directly west, the Kenai Fjords National Park draws tourists and backpackers, many of whom come down on the train from the north and ride commercial cruises within eye shot of the glaciers and sea life. The more ambitious people traverse the fjords with kayaks or packrafts. And if you take a boat and fishing gear out to sea, you can catch more salmon and halibut than you will ever know what to do with.

To say the least, I regret my decision not to stay there longer. I made time for a quick stop at the Resurrect Art Coffee House, a cute little place in downtown, chatted with the barista, fueled up on some pastries, and got started on a 68 mile ride north through the Kenai Mountains. I passed the marina on my way out, catching a good scent of a recent catch from a town fishery. Fuck, I have to come back here.

I was 30 miles into the mountains. They seemed to close in around me. And yet, every uphill climb I did on that highway was a breeze. Nothing like the grades I fought on the Glenn Highway, or the ones at Denali that made me almost give up and turn back. I crested one easy hill after another, following rivers through the steep, narrow valleys and cooling off under an occasional drizzle.

Halfway through the day, I stopped at Summit Lake Lodge and got a hot meal. The owner told me that it was the highest point in the range, and that everything afterward was at a downhill descent all the way to Turnagain Arm and the edge of the ocean.

I stopped an hour later at a ravine to get some pictures, and noticed a large bird gliding a hundred feet right above my head. When I looked again, I realized it had a white head. Holy shit, that’s an eagle! It turned and flew out over the gorge, catching an air current and flying upward in long, slow circles until I could barely see it anymore. I got back on my bike and made for Turnagain Pass, twenty odd miles ahead, and planned to camp that night.

Each of my three bike trips in Alaska had their set of challenges. In Denali, it was the 10 mile climb up Sable Pass with heavy cargo (especially that fucking bear canister), the clouds of mosquitoes, and sleep deprivation induced delirium. On the Glenn Highway, it was the fact that I had to climb an 8% grade after biking for more than 100 miles overnight. On this trip, it was the wall of rain that hit me in the face when I came around the turn at the bottom of Turnagain Pass.

In no time at all, I was drenched. I hadn’t done my homework and bought waterproof gear or eye protection. As the downpour hit me in the eyes, I picked up the speed to get to my camping spot, where I could hopefully set up a shelter and dry off.

I reached the rest stop on the highway, found the large hill to the west, and looked for an easy way to get to the far side and set up my tent. I needed to hurry the hell up, it was getting cold and the rain wasn’t stopping. I found a game trail that led out to the side of the hill, crossed a creek, pushed through a bramble of willows, found a level spot away from eye shot of the highway, set up my tent, and got my ass inside.

It rained all night. I don’t know if it was condensation building up on the tent walls, or a leak somewhere, or both, but water kept accumulating on the corners. It was a cheap $40 Wal-Mart tent that just big enough for a cub scout, and as far as I am concerned, was a piece of shit. I spent two hours mopping water from the tent floor before I finally decided to just sleep through it. If it wakes me up, so be it.

My sleeping bag ended up saving my ass. I woke up and noticed that it had gotten lighter outside. It was 6am. I had slept for four hours. Good enough.

The downpour stopped. Outside, the landscape lightened and a break of sun came out on one of the mountains. It wouldn’t stay that way for long. The rain was hitting the tent in rounds all night, about one every 30 minutes, so I knew I had to get moving.

I packed up, hiked back to the rest stop, and got my gear together in one of the outhouses. I got my tent out and threw that piece of shit in the trash, drank a reserve bottle of water, and had a bag of beef jerky for breakfast, freeing a good ten pounds from my cargo.

As soon as I got back on the road, another downpour hit me head on. In that early hour, I could feel the cold right away in my fingers and toes, which started to go numb after twenty minutes. I supposed it’s to be expected if you’re using fingerless gloves and cotton socks, yet another backpacking lesson learned the hard way.

I came down the pass to the edge of the inlet shoreline, an absolutely stunning vista of panoramic scenery, with tall, breathtaking mountains to the north, south, and east, but I was too groggy, hungry, cold, and pissed off at the weather to give a shit. The highway turned southeast, crossed the rivers that emptied into the Turnagain Arm, and then went northeast along the shore for 40 miles all the way back to Anchorage. Fog hovered around the tops of the mountains, and the valleys between them were dark and grey, taking in one downpour after another. More cold rain hit me as I traveled east. When is this shit going to stop???

I was 20 miles from Girdwood, a ski resort town along the highway. I planned to find a roadhouse or diner there and get some much needed shelter, hot food, and most importantly, coffee. When I arrived, I found a shopping center right by the highway with a family restaurant.

I tried to lock my bike and the key to my U-lock stopped half way. Fuck. Weather and dirt must have worn it down, rendering the thing useless. Could be worse; at least it didn’t happen after locking it. Then I would have had to bust it off with a car jack or blowtorch, and maybe convince a few people that I’m not trying to steal my own bike.

I parked it next to the front door of a coffeehouse and went inside for some coffee and pastries. I got in line behind a group of cute hippie girls, one of whom had done some touring herself. Apparently, it was supposed to be nice that day and a festival was going on in the town. They told me I should come along. If I hadn’t already made plans in Anchorage that night, I would have taken them up on it.

I rode a few streets into the town and found the trailhead to the Bird to Gird Trail, an awesome bike path that goes along the ridges above the highway for 13 miles. Up ahead, clouds broke up where the fjord met the ocean, giving way to a bright blue sky.

A warm, dry, powerful tailwind hit me from behind, sunlight broke on the bigger mountains, and just ahead, another eagle flew above a spruce forest along the slopes. They are abundant in the boreal country, especially along the mountainous shorelines, where perch sites are plentiful and views of the water are far and wide.

The trail climbed uphill a few hundred feet and then descended back to the shore, ending at Bird Point, a bird sanctuary where you can walk up to a platform and watch eagles in their habitat. I didn’t see any, and figured they were out catching their food from the water.

I got back on the highway, the sun was finally out, and an even more powerful tailwind pushed me along. I barely even had to pedal. It was great severance pay for all the shit that I had endured the night before. Alaska’s climate, unpredictable though it may be, can sometimes work in your favor. Cyclists passed me going the other way, fighting the same wind current that I was enjoying. Watching them do that was an added bonus.

I got to Anchorage an hour later, and saw yet another eagle gliding into the air currents high above the marshy shoreline. My hotel was near downtown, another 7 miles north through the city. I just about coasted the rest of the way. I did it. I got to Alaska, I saw more unbelievable things that I could ever remember, and I toured what are without a doubt some of the best highways in America. What I saw and did in this countryside would stay with me forever.

I had met a lady named Ana the week before, who was living in Anchorage for the summer and working at a hot dog stand in downtown. I thought it would be funny to give her a surprise visit. So my trip ended as I sat next to her hot dog stand at one of the city parks, eating reindeer sausage and restoring my body of same badly depleted calories and protein.

Two days later, I was on an overnight flight back to Chicago.

It has been a year and a half since I made that trip. And I’ll be honest, there is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think about that wilderness. Even now, I scribble out bike routes, backpacking ideas, rafting trips, more places to explore in Denali, the eastern ranges, the rest of the Kenai Peninsula, it’s just endless. I want more than anything to get back out there again. It brings solitude and adventure like I have yet to find anywhere in the lower 48. Anywhere. There isn’t enough time in a whole summer for me to see everything that Alaska has to offer. But I’ll try. I’ll try to be satisfied. And I’ll be back with a new and better itinerary.

Part 4: What Should I Do In Alaska, Dan Hagen?