Monday, April 20, 2009

Day 4 – Glennallen to Chistochina

Monday, May 27, 2008

This was the day that our real trouble started—at least, for Alaska and Canada.  Bright and (ahem) “early” at 10 A.M., we awoke to a patchy sky. Of course, the very first thing we noticed each morning was the weather, as it would greatly affect the rest of the day. The patchy sky didn’t seem so bad. The clouds looked heavy and fluffy, but seemed too small on their own to cause us any woe—but if they ganged up on us, we could see it being a problem.

We were informed by our RVing Swiss neighbors that there was a high pressure system that had built up between there all the way to Juneu, which would mean fairly clear weather without much chance of rain, even though that particular area normally was quite wet that time of year. Good news, right? Well, it seemed that way. The clouds still seemed harmless enough.

We saddled up and made for the road. Glennallen is a “junction” city. As far as I could tell, the only reason why it even existed at all was because there was a junction in the road which made a convenient spot to put up some stores. The Glenn Highway, which we had been following since Anchorage, had been constructed during WWII to connect Anchorage to the Alaska Highway. During that time, Alaska was being used by the US army to help supply Air Support to Russia. The Glenn highway started construction at a camp named after two U.S. Army explorers, Capt. Edwin Glenn and Lt. Henry T. Allen. It is one of the few communities existing in the region today that wasn’t built on the site of a Native villiage. Later, the Alaska Pipeline (which runs right through Glennallen North and South) boosted the local economy with its service needs. Later, the construction of the George Parks Highway stifled the tourism economy by making it unneccisarry to use the route to travel between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Fortunately for us though, it was still tugging along providing us with an opportunity to restock supplies.
We headed North at the junction on the Richardson/Glenn highway. The clouds still looked harmless, the sun was warm, and the skinny spruce trees reached as far as we could see on the relatively flat wilderness stretching out before us. It was supposed to be a relatively easy day to the town of Slana because of the gentle terrain, and that was just the problem. You have no business going around assuming that things will be relatively easy when you are in the middle of Alaska on bikes, because you know what happens? You end up being quite mistaken. As soon as we had turned North onto the very flat highway where we assumed we would be able to make good time, we were hit with a wall of wind. Where we normally would have been able to crank out a solid 20 miles per hour, we were barely able to manage 8 mph if we really put our backs into it—which we did because we really needed to if we wanted to make it down to Vancouver on time to meet up with our dad. It was mostly just annoying. “How ironic,” we thought, “that after days of nasty uphill riding, we still have to pedal our asses off on the flat and downhill terrain.” It was easy to laugh at the irony of our situation, and if you can keep laughing, you are in good shape.

The highway stretched along without traffic for about 14 miles, mostly strait and flat. Already worn out from the wind, we stopped and tackled the first little bit of our vast store of granola bars that I had purchased the previous day. It was a little bit difficult to appreciate the beauty of the dense, rich forest stretching out endlessly around us benieth the quilted sky. The pillowy little clouds patched the otherwise blue stratus like harmless lambs, but to the West we could see heavy gray lions rolling in, and it looked like rain.

At a little town called Gakona, the Glenn highway branches back off of the Richardson Highway and becomes the Tok Cutoff Highway, heading more North-East. There at the junction we saw our first sign showing the distance to the Canadian border—only 210 miles away! That was encouraging.

The highway crawled down a slope along a small canyon and we were sheltered from the wind as we tried to escape the looming clouds behind us, but small raindrops began to fall. The descent was pretty steep—enough that I was nervous that Mark was going too fast down it. I wasn’t so eager to go as fast as possible after having my prior knee and shoulder injuries. Either way, we managed to stay one step ahead of the rain as we pedaled onward. The descent didn't last long though, as things leveled out a bit and the wind slowed us back down.

We dropped into a series of shallow valleys divided by hills and plateaus. A river meandered lazily in it’s wide bed along side us weaving through the little valleys it had carved out for itself. The vegitation was still very green, but the climate seemed a bit more dry and the terrain more rocky. It would have been really nice with the relatively gentle rolling hills—if it wasn’t for the wind. Although we had started heading more Eastward, the wind seemed to shift to hit us head on again. When we weren’t riding, it only felt like a gentle breeze, but with it against us as we headed into it, it really slowed us down and wore us out.

It went on like this all day; outrunning the rain while pushing into the wind over gentle slopes. It slowly wore away our morale. It was easy to become overwhelmed by the negative elements, and the thoughts of doubt creeped back into my mind. I couldn’t see how we could have the stamina to handle too many days of headwinds like this. It was just too frustrating to move so slow when it would otherwise be so easy without the wind.

As we made our way up a gentle, tiered slope, the large raincloud mass had disbursed into little raincloud masses, but we still managed to outrun it towards the blue skies in the North-East, even though we could not out run the shadow it cast. Once or twice we had to stop on the side of the road, and just lay down on the shoulder for a short nap. I knew we were almost out of water, but I didn’t want to use the swampy stream that crept alonside us. It looked like trouble. I thought about what to do as I got to the point of just about falling asleep before I felt droplets of rain, and had to wake Mark up so we could get back on our way and stay a step ahead of the real storm.

We had discovered the day prior, when walking a bit into the woods, that the forest floor was covered in a spongy, springy layer made up of moss, pine needles, leaves, and twigs. Out here, it was just the same, except that the trees were packed so close together that moving through the trees was not practical without a machette. For the most part, twenty to fifty feet on either side of the highway was cleared of all trees, but there was a distinct tree line where the forest is cut to, held at bay from overtaking the road creating a seemingly solid wall of tangled branches and bristles. If we needed to move into the forest to answer nature’s call, we needed only move a few feet into the tree line to be completely concealed from the highway. Of course, moving at all past the tree line was slow and difficult because of the strainer effect of the tight-packed trees. I felt like an ant trying to crawl through an air filter.

Finally, we escaped the shadow of the clouds, and we had the sun on our backs. We crested a hill that gave us a view miles and miles off into the distance, where every inch of ground was filled with this bristly spruce tree jungle. It was a humbling sight, imagining what it must have been like for the native tribes and early explorers to make their way through this tangled, springy mess—but it sure was beautiful. I remember trying to imagine what it would be like if one crashed an airplane out in the middle of it and had to try to make his way to any kind of civilization. With the springy mossy ground, extremely limited visibility, and spider web tangle of branches, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which one could have any hope of getting out of it.

Similarly, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which we would have much luck of making it down to Vancouver in time to meet up with our dad if we continued to have headwinds like we were having that day. I figured if we could only last until Tok where we start to head South, then we would finally have the wind to our backs.

We descended a gentle slope, and noticed that in the bramble on the sides of the roads that there were bunnies galore. We saw bunny after bunny after bunny dashing into the thickets. We started to make jokes about not having to worry about running out of food. Just have to keep on laughing…

We took a break at a rest stop near a crystal clear river. I don’t remember for sure, but this may be where we filtered some drinking water. We had been slowed down enough that we knew we wouldn’t make it to the town of Slana as originally planned. The next target was Chistochina, which was only several miles away.

The road had widened and smoothed out considerably from earlier in the day. It was a much nicer surface to ride on, but the winds still held us from picking up any decent speed. I’d had enough of it. I wasn’t laughing anymore.

We pulled into Chistochina at about 8:30 or so. Again, it wasn’t so much of a town as it was a stretch of highway that happened to have a couple of houses, a school, and some little stores along it. There was still plenty of light, but we were plain pooped out. We had outrun the rain all day, into the wind, and finally, the clouds had completely disbursed, and we had no worry of rain. We knew that there was a Bed and Breakfast in town that we could stay at if we really wanted to, but we didn’t want to spend the money.

We rode through town on a little paved path that led just alongside the highway scoping out areas that we thought we could stay. The idea of a bear wandering into our camp still had us spooked, so we didn’t want to camp too far away from help. We considered setting up a tent on the school playground which was surrounded by a fence, but thought we might end up in trouble the next morning, so we kept on riding. We found a campground, but it was either not functioning any more, or simply was not ready for the tourist season that would begin the next month. It was a mess, so we decided to pass it by.

We found a little general store that had a picknick table set up on some grass in front, and stopped to grab some supplies and also ask if we could set up our tent there. The lady inside was just getting ready to close, but she let us grab what food we needed. We asked if there were any campgrounds aside from the closed one we had already passed, and she said that there wasn’t anything. We could pay for showers there at the general store if we wanted, but we couldn’t camp there. As coincidence would have it, her mom runs the Chistochina B&B, and so we asked her to see if she could pull some strings for us. We told her that we would only need to set up our tent in the yard, and her mom ended up letting us stay for $20.

Our sense of security was worth at least that much, but the people at the B&B were really great and let us each take a shower, and invited us to watch TV with them. We had our showers, but were too tired to even watch TV. I prepared a basic little dinner for us, and then we hit the sack. It was still so bright out that Mark had to use a blindfold to fall asleep. I was so tired that I didn’t even have to bother.

I thought about the fact that we had been lugging around these ukuleles, but never had time to play them. That was a bit dissapointing to me. The whole day had been rough. It was one of those days where it was easy to think, “WHAT WERE WE THINKING!?” as it was more endurance than enjoyment. I had just enough time to dread the idea of a trip filled with headwinds before settling myself down and thinking, “Nah, it will be fine. Everything will work out…” before I drifted off to sleep.

52.6 Miles in 9.5 hours

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