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Ride Report: In Search of Alaska

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Words and photos by The Renaissance Cyclist    @Renaissance.Cyclist

A Different Kind of Moab

What makes mountain bikers crazy about Moab? I distinctly remember standing on the edge of Porcupine Rim and thinking,

“Now this is an ‘IMBA’ epic. To hell with all the technical standards we use to quantify an ‘epic’ - This feeling is all an ‘epic’ need be.”

What does Moab have to do with Alaska? As of writing this, I’ve yet to find any slickrock surfaces similar to those of Utah and the American Southwest in the Last Frontier… and I doubt I ever will.

What Alaska does have in abundance, however, is the magical formula of natural features which make Moab a Mecca for the adventurous cycling community; a bounty of ‘now this is epic’ feelings.

For example, a glacial flour field along an 18 mile stretch of river - a highway for adventure.

Moab and its playground of various rock strata captivates us on a few distinctive levels:

Stunning, jaw-dropping, out of this world scenery.

Variety of topography which is naturally conducive to cycling and demands exploration.

Environment challenges you as a rider; mentally, physically, technically, endurance-wise.

Alaska is quintessentially stunning and wholly challenging 98% of the time. With dedication and some fatter tires, adventure seekers can locate natural surfaces in the far north unlike anything found south of the 60th parallel (sorry 45NRTH, not far enough) but with Moab’s ‘I’ve got to bike this’ quality.

“Self-contained and self-propelled, we pedaled 80% of 150 off-road miles, often on no track at all. “ ~ Roman Dial, October 1989 Mountain Bike Magazine ‘Live to Ride, Ride to Die Mountain Bikes from Hell!’

Moraine ranges from difficult to ride quick-sand like mud flats (left) to fast hardpack with limited vegetation (right). 

Glacial Moraine

In the wake of receding glaciers one can find a plethora of cycleable surfaces. Moraine are the sediment and rock debris fields glaciers leave behind as they slowly churn away mountains. Truly massive glacial valleys leave a variety of moraine behind from sparse woodlands filled with miles of rock gardens, to sculpted swaths of bare rock, to beach-like stretches of glacial flour - somewhat akin to sand, and everything inbetween.

That’s not a road (left), it’s a completely natural rock garden expanding for miles throughout a spruce valley.

Not all glaciers leave behind topography great for cycling. Hanging-glaciers high up in the mountains are mostly inaccessible to even the most hardy adventure seekers. Maritime-time glaciers, the ones you’d see calving from the luxury of a cruiseship, fail to appeal to cyclists for obvious reasons. Small glaciers lack enough debris to build expanses of rideable moraine. Young glaciers often exhibit harsh and unstable environments and old glacial valleys get choked up with flora.

Even the best glacial valleys have moments… or even hours, of woe. In this case intermittent alders, tussocks and semi-frozen boglands.

Large inland-glaciers of moderate age (geologically speaking), seem to offer the best conditions for extended bicycle travel most of the time. Essentially, the best glacial conditions are those which leave behind a seemingly desolate landscape, with minimal plantlife and harsh grades in terrain scraped clean from the face of the earth.

Discovering New and Wild Riding

Alaska is very different than the rest of the United States in that:

Private lands are the exception to the norm, and…

Laws prohibiting cross-country bicycle operation are rare.

If you see someplace on a map you’d like to ride, chances are, legally you can.

Even most National Parks in Alaska allow backcountry cycling - something unspeakable for most of our southern Parks (take it from a former Park Ranger).

A most superb hardpack.

Another thing to keep in mind is Alaska is massive… really, it’s mind-bogglingly enormous. Almost none of it is developed and nearly all of it is up for exploration. The largest problem in discovering new rides is figuring out where to start, how to get to them and finding the time to do so. Most every off-the-grid exploration has to integrate bikepacking due to the sheer remoteness of the landscape.

A lot of my ‘discovering’ is done via a combination of Google Earth and USGS Topomaps.

I whipped up the route above while writing this over the course of about 10min looking for ideal conditions described above (if I was serious about this trip, I’d need to do further research). Although the route fits the bill as a potential candidate for moraine riding, there is no guarantee. Most new backcountry routes end up being more testament to an individual’s will and fortitude, than incredible riding experience… but you’ll never know unless you strike out and give it a go.

Packrafts also open up a huge new realm of possibility in Alaska. Aside from incorporating boating into the design of a potential route, using a packraft to float a river back to some kind of point of safety is a great backup plan for those parts of the map which may not be so idyllic for riding in reality.

Snow

As a cyclist, snow can feel as if it’s sealing away the riding world until spring. If you’re an avid cyclist who calls Alaska home, however, spring may be a six month wait… I don’t know about you, but that’s simply too long of a wait for me.

In reality, snow and ice often open up entirely new worlds for exploration: frozen rivers become super highways for those equipped with studded tires, crust riding - while rare - is undoubtedly one of the best days of cycling of the year and in the north land, dog mushing trails offer a new kind of track to follow.

Relish the snow and soon you’ll see it as a way to enjoy all your favorite places under a different light, and a means to discover entirely new adventure.

As I write winter is settling in upon us (we just got 5” of snow during the drafting of this report). Since this is a topic which needs thorough review and we will all need a little mid-winter cycling ‘ridespiration’ in the months to come, I will save further elaboration for my next report. Stay tuned.

Tomorrow’s Big Adventure: Volcanoes

While this report has focused almost entirely on cycling Alaska’s glacial moraines and valleys, this is because these are the environments I’ve been exploring of late. There are many other candidates beckoning for extending backcountry bicycle exploration in The Great Land.

For years now I have dreamed of bikepacking Alaska’s southwestern volcanoes. Katmai National Park and Preserve’s Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in particular has intrigued me.

Mount Griggs Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Credit National Park Service

The thing is, to get to any of these volcanoes one must hop on a small bush plane and take off into the unknown… not something one just up and does in a weekend. As with riding anyplace where nobody’s pedaled before, the trip could be boom or bust.

One thing’s for sure however, one can only dream and wonder for so long...

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” ~ Jack Kerouac

Follow my adventures on Instagram @Renaissance.Cyclist 

alaska ranger 3.0 Ranger Plus renaissance cyclist

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