Friday, January 9, 2009

Day 2 – Chickaloon to Sheep Mountain

Sunday, May 25, 2008

I couldn’t tell if I was alive or not. It was all dark, and nothing made sense. Vague shadows of thoughts tried to break into view, but a shadow in darkness has no form. Something about “The Jetsons.” What? That couldn’t be right. Nothing made sense.
Suddenly my eyes opened to a large fluffy tuft of blonde hair poking out of a mummy bag. It took me a second to figure out where I was. I blinked for a while and looked around the inside of the tent. I remember that I woke up once or twice the night before to the constant pattering of rain on the roof of the pavilion, but otherwise, I guess I slept okay.

I could still hear the ambient white noise of rain under the sound of our breathing… but it didn’t sound quite right. Then I heard the distinct musical notes of “The Jetsons” theme song. “Meet George Jetson.” What on Earth? “Meet George Jetson.” It was a bird! A bird had whistled that tune. Again, “Meet George Jetson,” followed by some other bird songs.

What was a bird doing out singing in the rain? That didn’t sound right. I leaned over Mark and unzipped the tent door. Without my contacts in, I couldn’t make much sense of what was going on out there. I put on my glasses and had another look. It looked cold, not sunny, but… then through the trees I could see blue clear skies. The sound I heard wasn’t rain, it was the river! I gave an amazed chuckle as a stupid half grin crossed my face. I thought to myself, What were the odds of that happening? We might actually be able pull this off!

I had prepared myself mentally for days like the one prior. I knew that at certain points along our trip that we would face overwhelming odds, poor luck, and unforeseeable circumstances that would drive me to a state of utter despair, at which point I would say to myself, “WHAT WERE WE THINKING!? I don’t even LIKE riding my bike!” I got that from my dad. Before this trip when he would tell people about our previous bike trips, that was one of his favorite lines of inner dialogue. Every time I heard him say that, I chuckled at how true it was, so on this trip, I didn’t only expect it to happen, I had counted on it. A big part of this trip was to push my limits, and see just what I am made of. I wanted to grow, and become stronger, both physically and mentally, and what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I expected the unexpected. I was ready to be surprised at every turn. That way I could say to myself, “Aha! I knew something unexpected would happen!” and simply push on in defiance. Inevitably, that is how we made it through that first day. I had just hoped that it wouldn’t be so rough at the start of the trip, but we just rolled with the punches, and popped back up for more.

Another important thing that helped us make it through hard times was to keep an upbeat attitude. Everything was a joke with Mark and me. Internally we might be crying, but on the outside we were laughing at our own misfortune with an attitude of casual disregard for the most awful eminent perils that could possibly await us up ahead. We figured it could always be worse, and that it would most likely get that way, so why waste time worrying about it?

I ached all over, and I was incredibly fatigued from the day prior, but we had blue sky that we couldn’t waste. I woke Mark and showed him the good news. It was time to start damage control, and get back on our feet to face the next day.

Nothing we had hung up had dried overnight; it was just too cold. But now the sun was peeking out from behind small fluffy clouds, and we had no time to waste. We moved all of our things out into the sunlight and spread them flat. I had a spare pair of shoes that didn’t get wet, but Mark had to wear ZipLock bags as shoes as his cycling shoes were placed by the freshly re-lit fire to dry along with mine.


Our faces were dirty and puffy from the previous day’s wet and cold, our eyes squinted with fatigue, and every single piece of equipment and clothing we owned was wet and covered in mud and gunk. I chuckled as I pointed out to Mark that we had been properly broken in—nothing was shiny and new anymore. My video camera had failed the night before because of all of the water that it had taken. It detected condensation in the electronics and automatically locked itself to prevent damage. I was able to dry it out with the rest of my things in the sun though, and luckily it began to function normally again. My cell phone was not so lucky. I didn’t manage to protect it well enough from the rain, and it was completely water logged. Even after drying it out the best I could at the time, the screen displayed a cryptic error message every time I tried to power it up. Mark’s cell phone didn’t have any service anyway, so we’d be out of contact with our parents for the next little while, but I needed my cell phone as an alarm clock to make sure we wouldn’t over sleep. I’d have to find a solution later.

After an hour or two, most of our things had dried, so we packed them away and saddled up again. The maps showed that we were very close to a place called Chickaloon which we assumed was a small town, and we hoped that we would be able to find a laundromat there to completely dry some of the more important things like my sleeping bag. We pulled our bikes back onto the Glenn Highway, now just a two lane mountain road, and about a half a block later, found Chickaloon. I laughed out loud at the irony of the fact that it was nothing more than a roadhouse, and also that we had spent the last night miserable in that little pavilion hut when there were motel rooms just a half block away. In hindsight though, I’m glad we stayed in our little hut there in the campground.

This was the second roadhouse that we had encountered on our trip, but it was a bit different than the last one. This one definitely had a more “mom and pop” kind of feel to it. It consisted of a little general store with out of service gas pumps and a couple of little pre-fabricated cabins lined up motel style. They didn’t have much in the way of real food, but we bought some snacks and things to get us going.

I felt great. The sun was high in the sky, we had a light breeze to our backs, and the sky was so blue and beautiful. It was chilly, but it was nice while riding. The road was generally flat just past Chickaloon, but after maybe a mile or so, we turned a corner and saw the road make a steep incline. I didn’t even care. We knew that we’d have a lot more uphill before we finally reached the REAL summit. As Mark and I started to climb this hill, I belted out a loud “YEEEEAAAAAHOOOO!” that echoed back to us from the distant mountain faces.

We finally reached a flat stretch. Up at that elevation, things weren’t too green. There were thick forests of aspens with yellowish autumn-like leaves with a fair amount of evergreens mixed in.  We were constantly on the lookout for wildlife since we were a bit nervous about encountering bears. Mark pointed out a big moose lumbering through the trees to our left and it casually stared at us chewing whatever it was eating as we wobbled by, cranking our way up the hill.

The road led us up the left side of the canyon that was beginning to narrow. To our right it dropped steeply down, and across the canyon mountains spiked up, topped with snow. The snow made me a little nervous, but I decided not to let it bother me.

Matanuska River
We reached the top of the climb and down below us in the canyon we could see the river surrounded by rich evergreen and aspen forests. A grand, green, snowcapped mountain belt stretched off into the distance, and a frosty mountain mist floated above the river. This was one of my favorite and most memorable viewpoints of the whole trip.

The road took us downhill for a little bit to the mouth of a smaller canyon, away from the huge river. We came upon a lake that had formed in the ravine, and then the road immediately led upward again. As we rode up high above the lake, we could see that the North end of the lake was still covered in ice. The canyon somewhat ended and the road branched off up a much more narrow winding ravine carved by a little stream. The wind had picked up, and we decided to stop for some lunch.

Lunch was always nice because it meant that we could rest for a little bit. We would take small breaks now and again, but lunch meant we could rest for a bit longer. There wasn’t a good place to stop, so we simply stopped on the side of the road and had our lunch on the gravely shoulder. Mark boiled up some water for broth and I made some sourdough and turkey sandwiches. In this narrow ravine the aspens were replaced by large sharp bushes and some twisted and misshaped trees. The vegetation was definitely getting sparse though. Most of the trees were brown and bare.

The small ravine had taken us up to a grassy plain on a broad alluvial fan. Tall grass spread out for miles with trees speckled here and there. Off in the distance the mountains continued to mount, one on top of another, shooting higher and higher into the sky. These were the mountains that I had seen outside the window of the jet. For the time being, they were at bay, but I was getting more nervous that my fear of riding through them was coming true.

The road that day had a rough texture. It was paved, but the asphalt was rough and gravelly. As we coasted down the alluvial fan, the roads became extremely rough. Many sections had been torn out and replaced with loose gravel, and other sections had been “repaired” with a layer of very rough asphalt on top. Pot holes were scattered all over, and it was quite perilous cruising down the slope trying to dodge them--but also kind of fun, in its own way.

Eventually the road veered upward again and we could see down into the main canyon where the broad , shallow river flowed. Cold looking mist drifted in the mountains’ shadows. Every so often, we would ride through one of those pockets of mist, and they were absolutely brisk. 

The next few miles seemed somewhat barren and bleak as the highway weaved up and down sheer rock faces that had been carved out for it. We passed a construction zone where dynamite was being used to carve out more of the rock and large signs gave warnings to listen for blast signals that we hoped we wouldn’t get to hear.

I still wasn’t used to days in Alaska. I felt pretty good, but I was starting to get tired. We had been riding for many hours, and it seemed like it should have been getting dark soon, but the sun was still quite high. That meant we still had quite a way to go.

Matanuska Glacier 
We came around a bend back into a more forested area, and continued up hill. We rounded a corner at the top of the climb and we looked down into the valley. Off in the distance we could see the Matanuska Glacier. What a sight! For the next several miles, the glacier was in clear view as the highway edged around the canyon. The road descended down into Matanuska overlooking the glacier.  Near the bottom before the town, I decided to stop and take a picture. I looked behind me to make sure that Mark had seen that I stopped, but he was looking at the glacier and was careening toward me at full speed. I yelped and quickly pushed my bike out of the way down the shoulder. He missed me by just inches!

A little frazzled from the near-miss, we were both getting a bit low on water, so we filled up there in Matanuska, and we called our parents to give them a status report.  Out of Matanuska, the road curved steeply upward, and then made a sharp turn to the left, descending down into a deep ravine. Unfortunately, we could see on the other side of the ravine that the road climbed clear back up the other side. We picked up some really good speed, but we were then in the shadow of the mountain, and it was extremely cold. My hands stung, and my eyes watered as I cut through the icy air, but I still enjoyed the downhill stretch as we hadn’t had too much of it yet. We crossed a little bridge at the very bottom and then started the steep climb back up.

Looking back towards Matanuska
I stopped several times climbing the hill because I was just way too fatigued, and I needed some sugar. Mark didn’t like to stop on hills at all. He preferred to just get to the top before resting, but he didn’t mind waiting for me. As I was making that climb, though, I ran into the only real problem of the day. My bike stopped working. As I was pedaling, the rear cassette system started to fail. Basically, I was pedaling, but the wheel wasn’t turning. It would do that for a while, and then finally catch again, allowing me to ride a little further, and then would slip again, and catch for a while longer. We didn’t have time for a breakdown! We still needed to go another twenty miles to stay on schedule! We pushed on up the next few hills over several miles as best as we could, but finally, in the middle of one particularly steep stretch, it slipped, but wouldn’t re-catch. I was dead in the water. It was starting to get really cold now that we had climbed to 2800 feet, and the high mountains around us would hide the sun a bit earlier than usual, so long shadows were already being cast by them. We unloaded my bike and I took the back wheel off trying to figure out how to fix it, but I simply didn’t have the right tools to get the sprocket cassette off to check the ratchet system. My hands were numb with cold and I couldn’t do much with them at that point, so I put it all back together and loaded my bike back up. We had just passed a place about a mile back, but we hated backtracking, so we stopped a passing pickup truck to ask them if there were any places to stay up ahead within the next few miles, but they said that there weren’t. Back down the hill we coasted to Sheep Mountain Lodge.

Sheep Mountain Lodge looked nice. They had more than just several new looking heavy duty cabins along with a restaurant and lodge area. We had originally planned to just borrow a wrench from them, but we decided since it was getting so cold that we would stay there for the night. The cabins were a bit out of our price range, but they offered us beds in the hostel style bunkhouse at $20 per person. I tried to squeeze a better deal out of them, but the price was firm. We did, however, get to soak in the hot tub without having to pay the “hot tub fee” of $15, so we did catch a little break there.

After thawing out in the hot tub, we unpacked our things. Some of our things were still a bit wet from the heavy rain we had on the day prior, so we spread the things around the bunkhouse and draped them over chairs and rails, and whatever we could find. We had cranked the heaters way up, and it felt so nice to be warm and dry. I used my pocket knife to crack the clear plastic window covering my cell phone’s screen to allow the trapped moisture to evaporate, and set it by the heater with our shoes and socks.

The bunkhouse was actually a mobile home type structure that was divided into two rooms with two queen-size bunk beds in each. We had one whole room to ourselves since no one else was there, which left us enough room for our bikes and gear. It wasn’t very big, but it was cozy.

I tried once again to fix my bike, but I wasn’t having any luck. We knew that we had the little town of Glenallen coming up the next day, so we figured that if I couldn’t fix my bike, we could hitch a ride to Glenallen and get it fixed there. If we couldn’t fix it in Glenallen, then the furthest we felt okay hitching a ride to would be Tok, but we really didn’t want to have to do that. Little did we know…

The day had, again, been mostly uphill. The lady in the lodge restaurant told us that we would still be climbing until we reached Eureka, which was the highest point for a couple hundred miles, but Eureka was only 15 miles from there! We were quite happy to hear that we would finally find the top of the climb we had been tackling since the first day. If only we could get my bike working. I was able to get it to catch again, but who could know how long that would last? I couldn’t do anything more to it without the right tools, so I put my bike back together and just hoped that I could at least make it to the summit the next day.

Exhausted, Mark took a top bunk, and I took the bottom one. With all of our things spread around the room to dry, we wrote in our journals, and then tucked in. It wasn’t hard at all to drift off to sleep on those fluffy mattresses, and I was out in a matter of minutes.

Then What Happened?  Read More... 



38 Miles, Approximately 9 Hours

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