Friday, October 16, 2009

Day 5 - Chistochina to Tok

May 28, 2008

In the morning, there was still a light wind, but Mark and I were ready to deal with it. Well… almost.

We were using GPS to map our course and also to provide all sorts of other information about our whereabouts and, more importantly to us, how far to the next thereabouts. It runs on AA batteries and, over the past 4 days, between the GPS and Mark’s camera, we had depleted my store of rechargeable batteries. But the sun was up, and that meant it was time to use the Brunton ™ solar array I had brought along.

Okay, so it wasn’t like an ARRAY, but it was a little solar panel that folded out from the size of a largish pocket book, to about the size of a smallish bath towel. And it was flexible--cutting edge technology at the time.

Anyway, as the batteries charged, we took our time getting up and eating breakfast. The folks who owned the B&B came outside to go about their chores, and also chit-chatted with us for a while. They pointed out a mountain just to the East covered in snow.  Mount Sanford. It looked kinda lonesome out there because there really weren’t any other mountains around it. It was also difficult to judge it’s scale or distance from us because it was pure white with snow. The B&B folks then told us that it is the third tallest mountain in the US at 16,237 feet, and is actually a volcano. “Woa! That little thing?” That gave us a pretty good idea how far away it actually must have been.

Well, they sent us on our way, off into the wind, with the sun high in the sky. With the reflection of the sun off of that mountain, there was a different feel in the air--almost Christmaslike. Maybe that’s why we were in a good mood. As we passed through what little there was of the Chistochina outskirts, we passed a little grassy field that was set up as a little airstrip. We were reminded again that it is pretty commonplace for Alaskans to own small airplanes to get around in. Trust me, it makes sense when you can see exactly how much open space there is up there.

Again we were traveling through the forests of drunken trees as far into the distance as we could see. It was a mostly strait shot headed Northeast to the Mantasta mountain range, which we knew from our maps that we would have to cross. Steep mountain passes are our FAVORITE.

The gentle slope gradually grew a little steeper bit by bit as the road curved Eastward and began to crawl the side of the Mantasta mountain range. We still had a great view of Mt. Sanford, although from a different perspective. On the edge of the mountains, they shot up steeply to our left, and dropped down to our right.

Mark was starting to feel hungry, but suddenly, down in the trees there was a flash of brown fur as something large and surprised moved from our view. Mark and I both saw and heard it, but we weren’t able to see what it was. As a rule of thumb, we didn’t stop to see what it was. We knew it was inevitable for us to encounter bear on our journey, but we did what we could do avoid it, if ya know what I mean. We pedaled a little faster.

Since we had changed directions, the wind wasn’t so bad, and as the road just followed the base of the mountains we encountered gentle rolling grades, though a bit curvey. We were making good time, but we felt like we were just being teased. After all, we knew there was a mountain pass coming up sometime soon, so it was annoying to loose elevation. Finally, we came upon a long downhill stretch with the snow covered peaks of the Mantasta mountains in the distance. It took us clear down away from the mountains into the basin.

“Oh well. So much for loosing elevation,” I thought. We were just going to have to start at the very, very bottom, and deal with it. And what better way to do that than to take a rest and have some lunch? We stopped somewhere at the bottom at a gravel pull out area next to a muddy looking river, and “refueled.”

The road bent Northward again, and directed us right into the heart of the Mantasta mountains, and as it did we were greeted with lots of ups and downs. I always got a bit nervous when I saw snow on the mountains. I recalled looking down from the jet just a few days earlier and seeing nothing but snow covered mountains out my window triggering a sick “0h crap” feeling. Immediately around us, however, there was no snow to be found. In fact, everything was quite green.

Soon we were riding up, down, around, and over massive yet beautiful and round pine covered hills making up the greater mountains. It was not an etched canyon like what we expected from a mountain pass. Each gentle mound hid the next as we wound our way through them, with only snow covered peaks above them and showing between them in the distance. I was amazed by the number of lakes! Around seemingly every turn there was another small lake formed in the small spaces between these mounds. You hear that Alaska has a lot of lakes, but man, they are not kidding.

The sky gradually had become gray high above us. Below the general grayish layer, there were small, light and fluffy clouds that drifted along, but appeared harmless.

We passed two people on bikes headed the other way, and talked to them long enough to find out that they had ridden up from Montana. Mark and I both though “Montanna!? What the crap? Why would you go from Montana to Anchorage!?” We just shrugged it off though and figured, “Hey, for us it is Anchorage to Tijuana. For some it is Fairbanks to Tierra Del Fuego, and for some, it is Montana to Anchorage. Whatever floats your boat.”

Things sort of leveled out, and we came upon a large marshy lake that filled the upper basin we had ridden into. The road followed the very round curvature of the lake and we saw a little bit of civilization up ahead. Okay, it was just a roadhouse, but to us, that meant civilization. All around us those mamoth snowy peaks we had seen in the distance were now upon us, steep, and rocky. Past the roadhouse, the road bent around right into a small break between the mountains, hiding what was up ahead. I didn’t want to think about it.

We parked the bikes and sauntered into the little back-country store. I always felt like a wild west cowboy wandering into a saloon in these situations because we always got the same kind of reactions from the Northern folk. However way they greeted us, it always sounded to me like “Howdy stranger, where‘d ya ride in from?” Plus, my cycling shoes had a slot to add pedal clips, and without those clips, they would always jingle around with each step like spurs. Yee haw. This store was like the others, like a really really mini grocery store, except this one also had a refreshment bar which doubled as the checkout counter. We sauntered (bow legged from the riding, of course) over to the bar and took a seat on the stools. I asked the barkeep -- er--the clerk for a nice cup of coffee. (No taste for sarsaparilla.) We decided we had better get a bunch of treats and energy drinks to last us till we finally got to the summit. We asked the clerk how far it actually was to the summit, and as it turned out, we were there! Great news considering we had been dreading it all day. The climb wasn’t anything like what we expected--but then again, what was what we expected up there? We hadn’t planned on making it all the way to Tok that day, but if we were already to the summit, it was certainly not outside the realm of possibility. That would make it a 90 mile day, and we still had about 43 miles to go, so we jumped on that and rode like crazy.

Unfortunately, as we stepped out of the roadhouse, the sky had become heavy. As we rode towards Tok, small raindrops started to fall here and there. A mile or two past the roadhouse, a police truck pulled up beside us and the officer asked us if we were okay, or if we needed any help since it looked like the rain might hit hard and fast. We just smiled and sent them on their way, and continued to pedal as it looked more and more like the clouds were about to burst. Although we had passed the summit, the downhill side was a lot like the uphill side with lots of ups, downs, twists, and turns. Also, wind is apparently mountain-proof up there because we were taking a mighty wind in the face on top of it all. THEN it started raining. We stopped and put on our rain gear, and packed our things better to avoid getting wet, and hoped for the best.

The road took us through some beautiful areas that weren’t hidden as much by pines. In fact, a lot of the dark pine trees were being replaced by some much lighter colored broad-leafed trees that seemed similar to aspens, but generally smaller and more narrow. We’d go up over one hill on a strait climb, and ride down the curved slopes on the other side seeing fewer and fewer mountains in the immediate distance.

The rain was sporadic. It would stop long enough for us to take off our rain gear and get riding, and then start up again long enough to put it all back on. Eventually we got tired of having to stop every time we needed to adjust, and we each worked out a way to adjust on the go. When it wasn’t raining, I simply unzipped all of my layers of shirts and jackets down to the skin to let the heat out, and I just had my neoprene knickers on which kept me warm enough when it got rainy, and cool enough when it wasn’t.

After a while, the rain completely subsided, and we finally made it out of the mountains and into a more distinctive canyon at it’s base. I could see a major change in the trees in that area. Much larger trees with thicker trunks started appearing among the stunted looking trees. Some of them towered high above with nice foot-thick trunks with heavy, hearty bark. Within a mile or two, we were surrounded by this type of forest with thicker foliage, but with plenty of space below to see deeper into the woods.

I was admiring the scenery, but then Mark stopped abruptly after seeing something up ahead. I looked up to see what it was and my heart jumped into my throat. Right up ahead of us just over the hill was a brown lumbering… something. We were both stopped, frozen, staring at it, whatever it was. I watched how it moved carefully: slow, deliberate, lumbering, about the size of a man--it had to be a bear. A decent sized one, at that. Mark got out the big knife, and I un-holstered the bear mace, and we both watched as it lumbered over the hill…

The tension in the air was so thick, we could have choked. Since the sun had come out, there were heat waves obscuring our view just where the horizon met the road up ahead, and it was difficult to make out what was headed towards us. I could see then that it was coming right down the road towards us, and fairly quick. Details started to form out of the vague brown shape as it neared. Was it running? No, just sort of… lumbering… no… pedaling? I squinted and was able to make out the details of a very old, sunburned looking man wearing what looked like a very thick, tan, winter coat, on a bike pulling a bright yellow kiddie-tote trailer. Not only was it NOT a bear, but it hit me that I knew who exactly was! It just had to be the legendary Al!

You see, when I was following the blog of the kid my age who had ridden all the way to Panama in 2007, he wrote that he had encountered this fellow on the road by the name of Al. According to him, Al is known to ride his bike almost non-stop during the warmer seasons between Anchorage and the Canadian border, just back and forth doing odd jobs and living on those limited means. I probably would have been disappointed to have not crossed paths with him at one point.

As he approached us, Mark and I were laughing ourselves silly that we had thought he was a bear. We reacted as if we had just bumped into a major celebrity, and he was surprised and pleased that we had not only had heard of him, but that we were glad to meet him and shake his hand. We sat and talked for a bit as he told us about his adventures on the road. His head was nearly bald, with frail wispy hair around his crown, his skin tanned deep from all of his time in the elements. He had a pleasant demeanor and smiled plenty despite the fact that he had precious few teeth to show, and had a warm, but croaky old-man voice. He was pleased to announce that he was celebrating his 60th year of being alive, and boy was he ever, just tugging along with life on the road. The most striking thing about Al was that up close we could see that he was actually wearing layer upon layer of clothing rather than just one thick coat. His neck was so scrawny that we could only imagine what frail body lie deep beneath all of those layers of plaid shirts and thin jackets. Easily 1/3 of his mass was made up of clothes. I couldn’t help but be worried about a guy his age wandering around on a bike in the middle of Alaska, but he sure seemed to have spunk. He told us that sometimes just takes naps here and there, but then rides on through the day and night rather than sleeping in normal cycles. He doesn’t carry any camping gear like a tent or sleeping bag; all he needs is his layers and layers of cloths which keep him both dry and warm. His trailer was one that is designed to carry little kids as passengers, but he used it to tote all of his canned food and extra water. Not a bad idea, if you ask me. It does a better job of carrying a lot of weight than those touring trailers I’ve seen, and keeps that weight off of the bike’s rear axle.

After exchanging a few tales from the road, we parted ways, and Al disappeared behind us with the Mantasta mountains. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see him along the road one day.
The road continued to wind and turn, but the grades were much more gentle. The rain started up again as we started to follow a slow, clear stream. Heavier this time. Instead of getting me down, it gave me a little grin. This was NOTHING compared to what we had on day one, and that was good enough for me. I started humming to myself the old song from Damn Yankees, “Heart.” Soon I was singing it out loud at the top of my lungs, Mark joining in with rich harmony, rain pounding our faces.

“We’ve got heart! Miles and miles and miles of heart! When the odds are saying you’ll never win, that’s when the grin should start!”

We just sang and sang as the miles rolled by, until finally the rain stopped, and the sun peaked out from behind the clouds, but not far above the horizon. The last 20 miles was almost completely down hill, and we coasted our way through the orange light nearing dusk with the horizon stretching flat ahead of us. Aside from getting chased by a dog when we passed a house (and almost getting bitten!) the ride went smooth down into Tok.

We pulled into the Sourdough Campground on the outskirts of Tok sometime just after 10 pm, and checked ourselves into one of their vacant tent sites. I was somewhat surprised to see how many RV’s and trailers there were. I mean, it wasn’t packed full or anything, but there were a lot more campers than we had seen coming from Anchorage. I was pretty tired, and got into bed after setting up the tent. Mark, however, wanted to get some laundry done while we had facilities available, so he stayed up to get that done. We picked a tent site that was right next to a shower/restroom facility, and I took advantage of the power outlets to get my electronics charged, such as cell phone, and video camera batteries.

Reflecting on the day as I drifted off to sleep, I starting to sing “Heart” to myself again, pleased that we had done our first 90 mile ride. We’d never done it before, and hadn’t planned on it for that day, but it felt good. We did, however, plan on riding the 90 miles the next morning from Tok to the Canadian border, and of course, we had no idea how difficult that would actually be.

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Route - 90.2 miles in about 12.5 hours

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