Date: April 10th, 2017
Distance: 85 kilometers
Song of the Day: Skin and Bones - Heartless Bastards
The day started off just as planned. The hot water from the restaurant yesterday made some good oatmeal for the morning and the warm temperatures made taking the tent down a breeze. I was back on the road and cruising along nice and early.
Not quite everything went as planned, though. I thought I had camped at the top of a hill, but I was just about half way up. Still, going up hills on smooth paved roads isn't so bad. Not fast, but I was feeling good. The sun was shining and everything was going my way. There were some wonderful views from the top as well. That was the way things went pretty much the whole time. Everything was great.
I got into Fairbanks just after noon. That's the end of phase 3 of this trip. I am back to paved highways and it's time to switch bikes again. It's also a chance for me to rest and eat lots of food. You remember the belt I bought in Nome? Since purchasing it I have had to add two more notches. I have a whole list of things I am going to eat while I have the chance...
Date: April 9th, 2017
Distance: 91 kilometers
Song of the Day: Come as You Are - Nirvana
What a difference a day makes. Today things went just great. The sun was shining, the wind was still being a pain, but at least I was back in the trees and that took most of the sting out of it. The trail was starting to remind me of growing up in Fairbanks. Stands of birch and Aspen, still bare from the winter, mixed with stands of spruce trees, the evergreens taking over and growing stunted in the swampy areas.
Much of the lowlands in the interior of Alaska are covered in swamp or muskeg. This leads to a lot of small ponds and sloughs in old stream beds. In the summer this stagnant water produces hordes of mosquitoes, which is one of the reasons I decided not to do this later in the year. It also makes this area nearly impassable, except along the rivers. For now, though, the frozen ponds make it easy to traverse the frozen terrain. The open areas make it easy to cross on a dog sled, snow machine, or even a bicycle. I spent the afternoon doing what I thought of as "pond hopping". The trail would go from one pond to the next with the minimum amount of time spent on the portages in between. All of those areas would have to be kept clear of trees whereas the frozen ponds do not, so the makers of the trail went with the path of least resistance. This wasn't a straight way to go, but I was happy enough to be cruising along pretty well.
By early evening the trail was heading for a large set of hills. I knew Nenana was on the river, so the trail must turn to the right before then, but it just kept getting closer to those hills. Eventually I was just a few hundred yards from the base of them. At that point the trail hit a section of power lines and followed along underneath them. (Again, this is land that the trail maintainers didn't have to clear of trees. The power company would do that.) The power lines also paralleled a section of the Alaska Railroad. Knowing my map, the highway between Nenana and Fairbanks must be just beyond the railroad tracks and before the hills. I just needed to find a way to get there. I took the next trail I could find that went that way. It let to a muddy dirt road, then a nicer dirt road. Finally that came to a paved road that crossed over the tracks and headed right for the highway. Perfect.
Right after the railroad tracks I found the Monderosa restaurant. I headed inside for some energy. I grabbed a large burger and Coke, perfect energy food. I also got some extra supplies from the lady running the place. A couple of Cokes for the next day and some hot water for oatmeal in the morning. Since I was all stocked up I decided to skip going to Nenana. It was 8 miles to town today, only to turn around and go back the other way tomorrow.
Instead I got out on the highway. Man, it feels good to be back on paved roads. I am so much faster. I even pumped some more air into my tires so I could just glide over the ground. The Parks highway was great, too. It has a wide shoulder and was mostly clear of snow and ice. I know most people don't like riding along a highway with a 65 mph speed limit, but I thought it was great. It's also not like a Lower 48 highway, with cars constantly whizzing by. This one usually has some space between vehicles.
I only went about 8 more miles before pulling over at the top of a hill. I found a nice secluded spot to set up my tent and went to sleep.
Date: April 8th, 2017
Distance: 15 kilometers
Song of the Day: Warm and Happy - Lonely Forest
This morning started off slow. I was in no mood to get out of my nice warm sleeping bag and face the cold again. Lying in my tent I could hear the wind still howling through the trees. It was really killing my motivation. Eventually I started to wake up and got some breakfast. I also got the fire going again. My boots were still so frozen I couldn't get my feet into them. It took over an hour to thaw them out enough for me to get them on. I was so not impressed with how this day was starting out.
I headed out onto the river ice again. It's a bit unnerving to get back out there and hope you don't fall through again. Like they say, you just have to get back on that horse. Not much else I could do. But after the first mile I had forgotten about the ice. It was the wind that was really killing me. It was slamming into me with no let up. Not as a gentle breeze but in harsh gusts that lashed at my face. Still, I slogged on. As I went I noticed that my left boot was somewhat dry. Or dry-ish. My right boot was not. I could feel water squishing around in there as a pedaled. That isn't good.
After about 7 miles I came to another turn in the river. It didn't help the wind situation any, but I did see the Tolovana Roadhouse. That's where the Iditarod trail passes through. I had found the trail to take me off the ice. Yay!
I went about a mile farther down the trail with that nagging feeling, like I was making a mistake. The one I didn't listen to yesterday. Eventually I realized I was being stupid. I knew I wasn't going to make Nenana. That would mean another night in the cold and another morning of frozen boots, neither prospect one I looked forward to. Instead I headed back to Tolovana. There was a sign on the door saying that the cabin was for people in need. If I wasn't someone who needed a little space warm and inside I don't know who does.
I split some firewood and got a fire going. Soon enough the cabin was nice and warm. I got all my things drying out by the stove. I then proceeded to eat about everything I could think of. I wonder how many calories I'm burning these days?
Date: April 7th, 2017
Distance: 61 kilometers
Song of the Day: Bad Day - Something Corporate
Today started out amazing. I was feeling great and everything was going my way. Quite literally. The wind, for once, was pushing me right along. Not that it mattered much riding through the trees east of Manley. Still, the trail was compact and smooth, which made for great riding.
The only problem I had was about three miles in I heard a "snap" and realized that one of my front racks had broken. That was frustrating. I was quite upset for a minute, but it didn't take that long to fix. I cobbled it together with some zip ties and a band of old inner tube rubber. As a person who breaks a lot of things I cannot recommend these two things highly enough. Zip ties and old tubes are light but often come in very handy. Sure, they won't fix everything but they can get you through a lot. I was back riding along in less than half an hour.
I went another few miles before the trail headed out to the Tanana river. I was a bit excited to get back on a river for a bit. I had ridden my bike over the frozen Yukon, this was my chance to ride down the frozen Tanana. These two rivers used to be the lifelines to interior Alaska. First with boats and dog teams, later with stern-wheel steam ships. The rivers were the network that connected communities. They allowed for trade and travel in both winter and summer. I wanted to be a part of that, and continue a tradition that had been going on for thousands of years. Also, the wind was at my back so I could really go on the open ice.
It didn't last. The afternoon was pretty much the opposite of the morning. Nothing went the right way, most importantly me. Just after the trail got out onto the ice it spit into two. One path lead along the shore of a bend in the river and the other went straighter to a point further down stream. I have mostly been following the Iditarod trail, which has been staked out. The Iron Dog, which is a separate race on snow machines, has covered pretty much the same course. The trail markers for one have been as good as trail markers for the other. Not here though. I realized that the trail I was on wasn't quite right but I thought the two would link up again so I kept pushing forward.
The wind soon turned against me again and there was one other troubling development. I started seeing wolf tracks in the snow running along the trail I was on. It had just snowed last night, so these tracks had been put down that very morning. They were heading the opposite way, so I could hope the wolf was still heading west. I also knew that wolves hardly ever predate on humans. They're more likely to be hunted by humans than the other way around. Still, I wasn't looking forward to a closer encounter with a wolf. Even dogs are dangerous to me, and wolves are far less predictable.
Eventually I realized my mistake about the trail and tried to find a path back to the Iditarod trail that was now running a few miles inland of the river. I spent a while exploring some snow machine tracks heading inland before realizing they didn't lead anywhere. It was all a waste of time. I would have gone back to where the two trails split off, but I still was concerned about the wolf finding me.
There are some small decisions that you regret immediately, and some that take a while. This one took a while, but I spent most of the rest of the day angry that I had not taken the inland trail, the one I should have been on. The one it would not have been any harder to use. It made all of my struggles so much worse. First it was the wind I was pushing against. Then I came upon an area of melting snow. The trail was starting to break up and my tires would often drop through the crust into a few inches of water. My big concern was that I didn't know if they were going to hit another layer of thick ice or if I was going to drop into the water below. To avoid this I had to climb up onto a nearby sandbar and ride along that. The wind was coming in worse there and blowing both sand and dust around. It was slow and miserable.
When I got past that section and to a point at a sharp bend in the river, the winds had scoured away the snow from the ice here. Some of the sections were scarred by the tracks of a few dozen snow machines. Other sections looked like smooth, fresh ice. I'm not too worried about the old, battered ice. The new stuff, however, I couldn't be sure it was very thick. On one of those sections my tires slid out and I slammed into the ice with my shoulder pretty hard. Fortunately for me it didn't even crack the ice. From the viewpoint right up close I could see it was at least a foot thick, so it helped me feel a little better.
Heading up the river didn't help, though. The wind was still blowing hard and it had often completely obscured the trail I was trying to follow. There were also a number of spots of open water. Normally I don't worry too much about falling through the ice, but when I see open flowing water that is a different story. I could avoid most of the sections, but a few were mushy snow concealing soft spots in the ice. I tried my best to avoid anything that looked like that. Eventually my luck ran out. Riding along my front tire dropped through a hole in the ice with such force that it snapped one of the mounting clips for my panniers. While I was trying to assess the damage I watched as my feet and the rest of the bike sank into the river...
I was a bit lucky in that the water was only a couple of feet deep. There was just a brief moment of shock as the cold water hit my legs and filled my boots. After that it was just a sense of calm while I tried to get a plan together. My day was over. It was time to make camp and get a fire going. I got my bike out and pulled everything over to the shore. There was plenty of drift wood on the beach, but with the winds going 30 mph I really wanted to be a bit inland and getting there took a bit of doing. The forest was on a small plateau about six feet above the river. I had to find a break in the steep bank to haul my bike up into the trees.
Once there the wind was much lower and I was quickly able to set up a fire. I then set up my tent nearby. By the time my tent was up and I had gotten inside it the fire had pretty much died out. I had stacked plenty of wood around so I could keep the fire going while drying out my boots so I stacked the sticks onto the coals and to help them catch I poured a little white gas over it. That worked too well. The flame burst out and set some of my wet socks on fire. While I was trying to put them out I realized that I had spilled some white gas on my hand because it was now on fire. My first thought was that instead of drowning or freezing I was going to burn to death like an idiot. As you might have guessed, I did not burn to death. My hand didn't even blister and I was able to put it out quickly because I was on a huge pile of snow. Still, it seemed like a perfectly stupid end to a rather frustrating day.
Date: April 6th, 2017
Distance: 102 kilometers
Song of the Day: Immigrant Song - Led Zeppelin
I left Tanana by 7:00 AM because it was going to be another long day, to Manley. There was a new road put in just this winter from Manley to Tanana. I think I've had enough of travel by river so I was planning on taking that. First I had to get to it though. The road is certainly a winter road, an "ice road", because it doesn't connect to the town of Tanana except over the frozen Yukon river. This would be my last day traveling on the Yukon. From here the river heads north and I will be going east. Farewell, Yukon.
The first five miles out of Tanana were just through dirt roads away from town. From there the road leads down onto the river ice. The snow had been scraped away to allow large tractor trailer trucks to drive it. At that point, though, there was nothing left to block the wind, which was just howling down the river. It was almost another 4 miles to get to where the road went up on the other bank. I had to fight the wind the whole time, so even that little section took over an hour. In a few places the road crossed over a small sandbar. The wind in these places would kick up the sand into long tendrils, like ghostly brown fingers reaching out toward me. I was happy when I finally got into the trees on the other side and out of the wind.
My elation didn't last that long. The first thing the road did was to go right up a giant hill. It never really stopped after that. I was constantly climbing up hills and dropping down the next side only to climb again. At least when there was wind it wasn't usually right in my face, and it brought in snow with it which was pretty. The land around me was either stunted conifers or stands of birch and aspen. This was like the classic interior Alaska scenery I grew up with in Fairbanks.
By the afternoon the snow had built up enough that I couldn't see the road very well. Normally this wouldn't have been so bad but on the big downhills it was hard to tell if I was riding on snow, or gravel, or ice. That made things a little bit scary. Down in the valleys the snow started melting out and I was riding through mud. Soon my stuff was caked with mud which was annoying. Urgh. Also, this bike isn't built for mud. Oh well, I will get my other bike in a few days.
I got into Manley before dark, barely. I was able to get some water and camped where the Iditarod mushers had been. I was all set to get back onto the trail early in the morning.
Date: April 5th, 2017
Distance: 101 kilometers
Song of the Day: Midnight Rambler - The Allman Brothers Band
I didn't get up at midnight like I planned. I gave myself an extra hour to sleep and I was back on the trail by 2:00 AM. By that point the trail was nice and hard again. Two days of melting weather had made it pretty good to ride, nice and smooth on top now that it was cold again. The darkness did nothing to affect the wind though. I was hoping it would have at least calmed things a bit, but that's not my luck. Nothing to do about it but keep pressing forward. It was at least warm. I didn't even feel chilly until just before the sun came up. That's one good thing about an "alpine start", you get to enjoy the sunrise.
I made good time on the day. I calculated that I would arrive in Tanana before things could get mushy again. Later the clouds moved in so I wasn't even too worried about that. The wind dogged me all day long, though. At one point I made a 180 degree arc around a bend in the river and had headwinds the whole time. I have no words to describe how frustrating that is.
Just outside of Tanana the trail split and for some reason I took the trail up into the hills. Maybe it was better, at least I didn't have to deal with the wind anymore. The trail turned into an actual road just beyond the town dump. I met a lady in a truck just outside town. She worked at the community library as a kind of volunteer librarian and said that would be a warm place to go, which sounded good to me.
The first place I wanted to hit up in town was the store. I had been running low on food, so this was a chance to get a well needed restock. While I was there it was the last day to get tickets for the Nenana Ice Classic. This is one of those funny Alaska traditions. For one hundred years people have been betting on when the ice on the Nenana river will break up. For me it was never about winning, mostly it's just about participating in something silly and fun. It did make picking a time easy. No reason to stress about it, just choose a day, and hour, and a minute that sounded good.
After I was all restocked with supplies I went over to the community library to hang out. The community library is really just the same as the school library, but open to the public. I ended up talking with Barb, the lady I met on the road. In the end she invited me to crash on her couch. I even got a shower and a good meal out of it. Barb had been up here for more than thirty years working various jobs, keeping a team of dogs, and raising three kids. It was fun to hear about life in Tanana and how things have changed over the years. She was also very sweet and tried to make sure I had enough to eat.
Date: April 4th, 2017
Distance: 36 kilometers
Song of the Day: Diminishing Returns - Harvey Danger
I didn't leave camp quite as early as I wanted. I was hoping to be gone before the sun was fully up but instead I was on the trail about the same time as the day before. Trail conditions had improved slightly, but the weather had not. I was still fighting a major headwind. I pushed on as best I could.
About mile 12 a saw a father and three sons on a snow machine. They were from the bible camp up the river a bit. We talked about trail conditions and other people who had biked along this route. It was nice to hear about other people traveling this way.
Conditions for the day deteriorated quickly after that. For a while I was worried that the ice on the rivers would melt out before I could get to Fairbanks but I see now that really isn't an issue. When I do see cracks in the ice they are not something to worry about. Generally the river is covered by three feet of snow, two feet of ice, over a few inches of water. I am sure there are deeper spots, but the cover is so thick that falling, bike and all, through the ice is probably not going to happen. Really my big problem is slush. The bright sun has been melting the top layer of snow. This has made riding slow and exhausting. It was right as I passed Bible Camp that I found I couldn't pedal anymore. I went maybe 200 more yards and only rode about 10% of that.
I turned around and headed back to the Bible Camp. The lady running the place, Carol, was very nice. She got me some hot water so I could eat one of my dehydrated meals. I was hoping the clouds would come out or the winds would stop but neither did. I asked Carol if I could stay for a few hours and she was happy to let me use one of the camp buildings. I didn't want to end the day early, but I wasn't going to get anywhere anyway. The calories to miles ratio was way off. Instead I planned to get up at midnight and ride through the darkness.
Date: April 3rd, 2017
Distance: 51 kilometers
Song of the Day: The Ice is Getting Thinner - Death Cab for Cutie
Today was in most ways the opposite of yesterday. I woke up early and was on the trail just after sunrise. If the weather were like the day before I might be able to push into Tanana in just two days. It was not. The wind was back to smashing me in the face. The trail conditions were bad as well. A "snow-go" or two had passed by in the night and ripped up the trail. This had then frozen so instead of the smooth path it was crunchy and hard. Like riding a bike over rough stones. It wasn't so terrible, but it takes a lot of energy.
I did the best I could but conditions were really frustrating. Sometimes I would try to ride on the edge of the trail where it was smoother. That helped, but at this time of year the trail and everything else look pretty much the same. If you put a tire over that invisible line from where it's packed to where it isn't you will sink in up to your axle. If that sudden stop throws you off balance you can't put your outside foot down because your leg will just post hole into three feet of soft snow and you and the bike will just fall over sideways. You then have to worm and swim your way out of it all. Really aggravating. I might have done that a time or two.
By the afternoon things were getting better. The sun was out and was warming up the trail so the jagged bumps of the snow machine tracks were melting and smoothing out. This didn't last even an hour though. By mid afternoon I was finding a new problem. The sun had warmed up the trail too much so now I was riding through mush. With the wind and wet snow I was lucky to be making even 4 miles an hour. By the end of the day I was back to just pushing the bike.
In the end I just had to stop and set up camp in the soft snow. I had plenty of daylight left, I just couldn't move forward anymore. At least, it wasn't worth the calories I would be using. So I set up camp hoping to get an early start and favorable weather tomorrow.
Date: April 2nd, 2017
Distance: 85 kilometers
Song of the Day: The Wolf - Eddie Vedder
Once again I was going to leave early to get a good start on the day, but instead I had a big breakfast. It was good in a way, I really needed the calories, but it also meant I wasn't on the road until almost noon. Even then it took a little while to find the trail again. No one seemed to know quite where it was. The advice to just follow the river actually kind of worked, though. A mile outside of town I found where the staked trail began and I was off.
The weather had turned overnight. There were thick clouds overhead and it was snowing lightly. It wasn't so bad though, the winds had also changed. If the breeze wasn't pushing me along, at least it wasn't in my face. I was actually able to move quite quickly with the packed trail and good weather. I wouldn't call it fast exactly, but I did arrive in Ruby before sunset.
When I arrived I wasn't quite sure where to stay. As I was trying to figure this out a car rolled by with what seemed to be three generations of women in it, grandmother, mother, and child. When I asked about places to camp out for the night they recommended the picnic shelter nearby. Apparently that is where the mushers on the Iditarod were staying. Works for me. I headed over there and cooked up my dinner. By the time I was finished with dinner the ladies had come back with an offer to stay with a local gentleman. The small villages here are great, they do try to take care of you.
The only problem with the offer was it was at the top of the hill, but who am I to complain about a warm place to stay? So I saddled up and rode to the hill overlooking the town. When I arrived, James invited me in and we watched the Anchorage evening news and I told him about my trip.
Date: April 1st, 2017
Distance: 60 kilometers
Song of the Day: Grey Ice Water - Modest Mouse
I left Koyukuk as the sun was coming up. Not that I could actually see the sun. The weather here has finally turned on me. After a couple of weeks of amazing weather things have gone to cloudy and grey. At least the riding has been good.
Well, the first 5 miles that is. After that the original trail was closed to avoid a big hole in the ice. The ice along the north bank of the river was breaking up. Not a great sign for me. I still need to get to Fairbanks before what Alaskans call "Breakup". It's pretty much what it sounds like, the time of year when the ice breaks apart and the rivers begin to flow again. Most of the travel since Kaltag has been on the frozen Yukon and will be until I get to Tanana. I need to be off the ice when that happens.
Sadly, the new trail was just soft snow. Even worse the wind, still blowing from the north, had covered much of it with even softer wind-blown powder. Just miserable to ride on. I couldn't tell from one moment to another if the snow would support the weight of the bike and the powdery snow was causing my back tire to slide all over the place. This went on for a couple of miles. In some places it was just easier to walk the bike. I haven't seen trail this bad since I left Brevig Mission. It made me feel good about breaking the Nulato to Galena portion up into two days at least.
I'm glad things didn't last that way. In the end the day turned out pretty well. I got into Galena even earlier than I expected because it turns out it was almost 6 miles short of where I thought it was going to be. I hope that means my trip to Ruby tomorrow will be shorter than the predicted 50 miles, but we shall see. The next few days should bee a challenge.