For a day that started with me never having entered the United States, I ticked off a few cities (or airports at least) on Tuesday 25th August. After an overnight flight from Lima, the day began with an early morning passage through US customs in Fort Lauderdale, Florida– a surprisingly uneventful passage given the stories I’d heard of rigorous inquisitions reserved for South American backpacker types. From Fort Lauderdale to Chicago and a rendez-vous with Meg’s parents. Brian and Diane had very kindly brought all our cycling gear to Chicago, from their home in Wisconsin, and so we swapped our backpacks for panniers, hiking boots for ‘clip-ins’ and, after a delicious first American burger (thanks Brian & Diane!) and farewell hugs, we were on our way to Alaska!
After further stop-overs at Salt Lake City and Seattle, we arrived in Alaska at 10:30pm to be met by a colossal, stuffed moose in the airport foyer. “Hopefully that’s as close as we get to moose!” I remarked. Five minutes later, having been picked up by Meg’s college friend, Alyssa and Patrick the dog, we passed a similar sized, non-stuffed, live version of the same animal! Our jaws hit the floor as we cruised passed this nonchalant behemoth, perched in the middle of the carriageway, minding his own business. Welcome to Alaska!
We spent a fantastic four days with Alyssa and Patrick in their beautiful new home, complete with sauna in the bedroom! Well, we could afford ourselves some luxury ahead of our 18 months of roughing it. Alyssa’s hospitality was first class – the fresh cooked Alaskan salmon was a highlight – and we are extremely grateful for you opening your door to us. It afforded us a comfortable place to put the finishing touches to our preparations.
Anchorage to Mountain View Road
As we set off at 1:18pm on Saturday 29th August, we felt a mixture of excitement and a little trepidation at what lay ahead over the next 18 months. In truth though, it felt great to finally get on the road and to begin to realise a dream that had been four years in the making! After a couple of detours to pick up some final supplies from a local bike shop, we managed a modest fifteen miles that afternoon before setting up camp just outside Anchorage’s city limits. Mountain View Road to Knik River
We made good progress on day 2 on the quieter Old Glenn Highway reaching the Knik River crossing just south of Palmer. We might have made it to Palmer, where the Alaskan State Fair was in full swing, had it not been for a half-hour stop to change into our waterproofs (for a rainstorm which never materialised) and some pannier trouble (an early confirmation of the usefulness of bungee cords and duct tape!) I think all the excitement finally caught up with us as we both slept 11 hours till 9am. So much for getting up with the birds!
Knik River to Chickaloon
Despite setting off a little late after our lie-in, we made it to Palmer by midday and had a quick stop off at a diner to fill up on water and charge our phones. As we watched the locals going about their business, I couldn’t help but think of the diner in the scene of Lloyd and Harry’s contretemps with Sea Bass (for any Dumb & Dumber fans out there!) Thanks to the young Floridian at the nearby Pioneer motel for setting us on the right path and for filling up our water. We left Palmer on the main Glenn Highway which, thankfully, had a nice wide shoulder and was quieter given most of the traffic had stopped off at the State Fair. As we racked up the miles, the valley opened up to reveal the spectacular Alaskan wilderness and, for the first time, the adventure began to feel very, very real!
Chickaloon to Glacier View
After an early rise, we cruised along for a mile before reaching a sign reading, ‘Chickaloon (what a name!) 5 miles’. “Great, we’ll be there in no time”. Then appeared our first mountain and a first real test for our bodies and our bikes. Then another appeared, and another. We lunched at a beautiful lakeside at the foot of yet another steep ascent, atop which, we caught our first glimpse of the majestic, Matanuska Glacier. As we negotiated the hills which bordered the glacier, we bumped into Alan - a passing local who stopped for a chat. A keen cycle tourer himself (he was due to set off on a European tour in three days) he consoled us that we had passed the toughest of Alaska’s roads and that we would encounter nothing more than rolling hills between here and Whitehorse, close to the Yukon – British Columbia border. This news gave us renewed vigour and we cycled on to our camp at the foot of a mountain which shielded us from the Glacier channel’s icy blast.
Glacier View to Eureka
Day 5 was easy…for the first 23 seconds! A steep descent was quickly followed by, yet another, substantial climb – a two hour uphill slog. “C’mon Alan, where were those rolling hills?” While stopped at a viewpoint to catch our breath, we admired the impressive, Lion’s Head peak. This mountain is a lump of volcanic rock which had withstood the force of the advancing glacier and was a rusty amber in colour. As we gazed at the scenery, a brother and sister travelling from Prudhoe Bay stopped by and suggested we stop at the nearby, ‘Sheep Mountain Lodge’ for lunch (for lunch read: budget friendly refill coffee with crisps and salsa!) Unfortunately the sister had to interpret as the combination of my Scottish accent and the brother being deaf as a doorknob, wasn’t really conducive to a flowing conversation! Sheep Mountain Lodge was, indeed, excellent and their refill coffees and friendly staff were just what the doctor ordered. This was also our first encounter with Wi-Fi and an opportunity to confirm my ongoing existence with my family. However, a 3 hour break was probably a bit excessive! Nevertheless, we made up time with a coffee-fuelled sprint on the flats all the way past the Eureka trading post. This stretch was the most scenic yet – autumnal colours in the foreground, evergreen trees in the mid, topped with the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Chugach Mountain range.
Eureka to Glennallen
I woke up three times during the night – those coffee refills have a lot to answer for! Popped my head out of the tent to check for bears and / or the Northern Lights but saw neither. We rode out that morning to cloud cover and a biting cold. After a couple of testing hills to warm the blood, the rolling hills, that Alan had promised us, began to materialise. We quickly racked up 28 miles before lunch and, after a brief refuel on peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches, we got back on the road. Not long into the afternoon shift, my body began to show signs of strain. Back and knees were crying for mercy. No such problems for Meg who was, “in the big loop” for the first time and was tearing up the track! For me, the town of Glennallen couldn’t come quick enough as the pain and the cold began to take effect. Still, I managed a chuckle as we passed the ironically named, ‘Arizona Lake’. The current climate felt a million miles from Arizona! Despite the travails, we broke 50 miles for the first time and arrived into Glennallen at 3:30 that afternoon for a well-earned rest evening. A bowl of chips and some ice on the knees soon raised my spirits as we prepared for the next day and the trail north towards Tok.
Glenallen to Gakona
Feeling rested and pain-free, we departed Glennallen clad in waterproofs as we caught our first rain shower of the trip. Still we made smart progress as we clocked up 14 miles in the first hour and a half before disaster struck! As we ascended the steep hill leading to Gakona junction, my back wheel began to wobble uncontrollably and we had to stop by the roadside for some urgent repairs. They say every cloud has its silver lining and this misfortune would be the precursor to the most humbling show of warmth and generosity we are likely to experience on this trip. I’ll let Meg share the story in her forthcoming ‘Uplifting news blog’. Suffice to say, the McMahan family were angels sent from heaven!