Wednesday, July 3, 2024

A Successful Fail


Post by Corrine

The complaining started even before the trip started.

“What? You can’t change your plans! Now I want to go. But I’m on call. No fair!”

I whined as Eric told me about the adventure trip he and Nikki had planned for the weekend. 

Originally, they had planned to do a long exploration fast-hike from Eagle Summit on the Steese Highway to Ketchum Dome behind the old Circle Hot Springs Resort. I had no interest in a long fast-hike, and I was on call anyway. No big deal.

But then plans changed. Nikki’s husband, Mike, was interested in exploring a similar route that would follow mining roads and ATV trails. And Nikki wanted to introduce Mike to a bigger human-powered bike adventure. So, the plans changed to a 24-mile-or-so bike ride from Portage Creek, near Ketchum Dome, to Miller House, a mining area on the east side of Eagle Summit. That sounded fun! But I was on call and had to be available for possible phone calls and there was no cell service where they were headed. That’s when the whining started. I’d have to miss out on a fun adventure. 

Or would I? One of my partners, Nate, had just had surgery two weeks earlier. He wasn’t recovered enough to do anything fun, or even work, but he was feeling better. He was stuck at home, getting bored. Maybe he would cover my call so I could go on an adventure? I reached out to him, and with no hesitation, he agreed to cover for me. I could go!

Best Laid Plans

Mike, a pilot for the Alaska State Troopers, had flown over the area between Eagle Summit and Central many times and had been on some of the trails. He was pretty sure that we could bike from Portage to Miller House using mining roads and ATV trails, though he did warn that there would be some hike-a-bike. But in between the two ends, the route would be entirely on ridgelines. Nice!

On our GaiaGPS app, a gpx route showed that it would be about 24 miles with 6500 feet of elevation gain. The distance sounded fine, but we doubted the route had that much elevation gain. We like GaiaGPS, but it had given us screwy elevation numbers at least once before. We were confident the route would be easier than that.

Our proposed route

We thought those 24 miles would take 4-5 hours. Since we were going from point A to point B, we figured we would have to do a shuttle. But Eric measured the road distance between the two points at about 28 miles with not too much elevation gain. Eric and I decided we would bike back to our car and make it a loop. So, just over 50 miles of biking. And a good day of training for me.

After Mike got off work, he and Nikki headed out Saturday to camp off Miller House road with Mike’s sister Shelli, who was visiting from Washington. Eric and I talked about camping too but decided to get up super early Sunday morning and make a long day of it. That way Nate didn’t have to cover call any longer than necessary. 

We loaded our bikes on top of our RAV 4 and left home at 5:30 AM for the two-and-a-half-hour-drive out the Steese Highway. The air out the Steese was hazy from the wildfires, but conditions were much better than in smoke-choked Fairbanks.

AQI of 350 - hazardous conditions when we left Fairbanks.  Photo from a friend, taken in town last weekend

We stopped to pick up Nikki and Mike at their campsite and loaded their two bikes on our hitch rack. Then we drove the final 28 miles to our starting point, a high point on Portage Creek Road, a mining road behind now-defunct Circle Hot Springs resort. The high point is about 6 miles and 1500 feet of elevation past the old resort. On the way, we got the idea that we should have had Shelli come along and drive our car back to the beginning to save the ride back to the car. It’s a good thing we weren’t that smart.

A Bumpy Beginning

Just as we were ready to start our ride, Mike’s bike chain kept jumping off his rear gear cluster. A mechanical right away! It was a head scratcher. He had just ridden it a couple of days before with no problems. After much tinkering, we finally decided it was a bent derailleur. He bent it back and voile, problem solved. We were in business. Or mostly in business. The problem soon started again, so Mike had to bike without the use of his lowest gear. That turned out to be not as big of a deal as it might have been. You don’t need your gears when you are pushing your bike!

Mike works on his bike

At 10 AM we were finally ready to go. Now we had two options. Continue on Portage Creek Road down, down, down to where a trail exits the road and then heads uphill. Or follow the trail from our parking area and head uphill first. We would end up in the same spot after a couple of miles, and Mike thought the trail in front of us was shorter. We weren’t excited about losing elevation right away, so we chose the shorter route. Smart choice, right?

Starting towards the hill behind our parking spot.  How hard could it be?

The trail started fine, with a bikeable climb and then a short, relatively flat section followed by a descent. Then the pushing started. It was hike-a-bike on steroids. The ATV trail went up an extremely steep slope that was either rocky or had lots of vegetation (sometimes both!). What a grunt! In some places I had to take a couple of steps, get firm footing, shove my bike up a bit, grab the brakes, take a couple of steps up, then do the whole process again. Over and over and over. We teased Mike a bit about the route choice, but he reminded us he had warned us about some hike-a-bike. Fortunately, it wasn’t super-hot out and the bugs weren’t too bad. There was even a nice breeze, especially up higher. But my arms were aching already. All those upper body strength exercises I had been doing didn’t seem to have helped at all!

This was a lot steeper than it looks.  At times 40% grade according to Mike

We finally made it to the top, only to discover that the trail totally petered out. 

“Where is the trail?” I asked. 

“Off the back side,” Mike said.

Nope. No trail. But we could see the trail we wanted to be at the base of the small dome we had just climbed. All that elevation for nothing! And there was a brushy saddle between us and the trail! We shrugged and went kamikaze on the steep tundra-and-rock slope (sometimes on the bike, sometimes off). Fortunately, Nikki found a halfway decent trail that led through the brush over to the other trail. 

Selfie at the top of the stupid hike-a-bike hill

We head cross country.  You can see the trail on the next ridge where we need to be

When we got to the well-developed trail we laughed at our earlier decision. Clearly, we should have ridden down the road to get to this trail. Oh well. We started biking and it was great. . . for maybe half-mile. Then we had another hike-a-bike up a steep rocky incline, though it wasn’t as bad as the first. Then a steep and rocky downhill that was mostly bikeable. Then a little riding before another push up another hill. 

We can actually ride our bikes!

Pushing up yet another hill!

And that’s how it went. Push up a steep hill, ride a bit, then ride or walk down a steep, rocky descent. Ride a bit, push up, ride down. Repeat. 

Decision Time

We finally got to a little plateau and realized it had taken us three hours to go just six miles. I can hike faster with less effort! We had spent more time pushing rather than riding our bikes. Mike was ready for lunch and sat down for a break.

We discussed our options. We weren’t even a third of the way done. The trail might get easier. Eric insisted it would, but he was basing that on his vague memory of the topo map and an overly developed sense of optimism. The rest of us decided not to believe in fantasies. We figured, at our current rate, we would need at least nine more hours to finish the route and then we still had to do the shuttle to pick up our car. (No way were Eric and I going to bike back to our car once we got to the road!) Even without the road biking, we wouldn’t get back home until after midnight. And I had to work the next day. 

But turning around is hard. At least for some of us. I think Mike was ready to turn around right there. We could see the trail ahead of us for a ways. After another steep descent, it climbed to a plateau and then climbed again to a high point. We couldn’t see the route beyond that. Eric, confident the trail would get better, thought we should head to that point before deciding what to do, but he was happy to take a little break and started to eat part of his lunch.

Lunch spot

But if we were going to that high point, I wanted to take my break there. Nikki seemed to feel the same. Unfortunately, our group didn’t do the best job about communicating with each other about what course of action to take. While Mike and Eric were eating lunch, Nikki and I took off, figuring they would soon be coming behind. Eric did follow and caught up to us, but the three of us got only partway to the high point (after another hike-a-bike) before deciding we should turn around. I guess we needed some time to process the fact that we weren’t going to be able to do what we had set out to do. Failure can be hard to digest.

Nikki and I head a little further out the trail

But turning around was the right decision. We probably had enough food, but we didn’t have enough water and finding it on ridge tops can be hard. We certainly didn’t have enough time to get back at a decent hour. Eric the Optimist decided that we just needed to reframe the outing. Instead of this being an adventure, it was a scouting mission. We were getting intel for next time. We started heading back, a little disappointed but full of good information. And now we were really glad that we hadn’t thought to ask Shelli to take our car back to the start.

Mike sat on the other knoll and watched us work our way back to him (including a hike-a-bike back up to the top of the knoll). He processed our failure without all the extra pushing. 

Heading back required one more big hike-a-bike, but the other uphills were smaller and the riding portions seemed longer. This is what we had signed up for! We followed the better-developed trail all the way to Portage Creek Road, which required a long, steep descent before intersecting with the road. Then it was a long climb to the high point, but at least it was bikeable. 

Fun cruising on the way back down

Cruising to the End

Eric offered to drive the car and give everyone else a chance to bomb down Portage Creek Road back toward Central. After changing his clothes and getting his bike on top of the car (not without some troubles), he slowly drove down the rough road, figuring he was losing time on the bikes. And he was right. It sure was fun bombing that hill and biking those fast road miles after all that rough trail.

Finally some faster miles on gravel road

Around the old Circle Hot Springs Resort the road got better, and Eric finally was able to driver faster, but he didn’t catch Mike until Ketchum Creek, where Mike had stopped for a little splash bath.

When they finally got to Central, Nikki and I had already had enough time to buy a cold drink from the restaurant, come back out to wait for them, and decide we all needed to eat dinner there since it was almost 5 PM. 

The distance out-and-back from the car was just under 14 miles but with 3600 feet of elevation gain. (So, maybe GaiaGPS had been right!) Nikki and I got another 14 miles or so on the road. 

Eating at Central restaurant was a great ending to a fun day. Even though our original plan failed, I would call it a success. Yes, we didn’t get to ride the entire route. But we did get to see some new trails (and get some important intel). The weather was great, the bugs minimal, and the company was fun. Plus, we were out of the smoke in town and got in a great workout. (Including an upper body strength workout!) And I got out of a day of call. 

I call that a win!

Celebrating our successful failure

Our actual route - 29 miles with 3900 feet of elevation gain of which 3600 feet was in the first 14 miles!

Friday, June 21, 2024

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – A Trip on the Dalton Highway


Post by Corrine

We biked toward the ominous dark clouds hoping to beat them to the intersection. We heard a rumble of thunder and biked harder. Would we make it?!

We were biking from Wiseman just off the Dalton Highway. We had already gone 25 miles, biking up from the Marion Creek Campground and doing a little exploring on some side roads. We had seen the clouds after finishing biking eight miles on the road to Nolan, which forks off the Wiseman Road, but we were only a mile from Wiseman. The clouds didn’t appear to be moving fast, and we felt like we had to do a least a quick tour of the iconic town. 

We buzzed through Wiseman and then headed back to the Dalton. On the way, we could see the clouds, coming from the north, moving closer, too close. It looked like they were bringing rain. If we could just get back to the Dalton, we would at least be biking south away from the clouds. We pedaled hard, making the intersection just before the storm. 

Turning south, the sky rumbled again. I picked up the pace assuming Eric would be right on my tail. A few minutes later, I looked behind and couldn’t see him anywhere. But by now the dark clouds were right overhead. 

Those dark clouds are right overhead now!!

“Sorry, Eric,” I said, even though he couldn’t hear me. “You’re on your own. I love you but I’m not getting wet if I can help it.” 

And with that I tucked down over my handlebars, cranked on the pedals as hard as I could, and raced all the way back to the campground. On the bright side, the storm brought a strong tailwind, so biking was fast, even on mountain bikes. (Eric has several excuses for being far behind including stopping to take a photo and having a bike that needs a drivetrain adjustment. He insists it has nothing to do with his fitness level.)

I stayed just on the edge of the storm for the entire ride but got hit by only a few raindrops. I managed to beat that storm back to our campsite. Then I waited for Eric, wondering if the storm had caught him. He arrived 5 to10 minutes later, still dry but barely. The storm had rained on him a bit, but he was able to ride out of it. Whew! We decided to drive the four miles into Coldfoot for dinner, tired and ready to eat. 

That was just the first adventure on our Dalton Highway trip last weekend, which had everything from the good to the bad to the ugly. But mostly it was good! 

A Trip for Training and Fun

We headed up the Dalton partly because I wanted to get in some more big miles on my bike. I’m training for two races this fall – Rebecca’s Private Idaho gravel race and the Arkansas High Country bikepacking race. The weather forecast looked good, better than Fairbanks or the Denali Highway. 

I had already biked the Dalton from the Elliot Highway to the Yukon River and back a couple of years ago. I’ve wanted to bike the entire Dalton Highway, but there wasn’t time this weekend for that. Still, I could do more of it. I checked Google Maps and noted that the distance from Marion Creek Campground to Galbraith Lake Campground was about 100 miles. That also just happens to be the most scenic part of the highway, going over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range. A nice, hilly century ride. 

Eric was game to come for some adventuring and drive the car to Galbraith Lake. Eric had heard there was a couple of road/trails in the Coldfoot/Wiseman area that might be bikeable. And we could check out Wiseman. And Eric wanted to do some hiking around Galbraith Lake. 

Day One – First Good Then Bad

Yukon River

We left just a little after 6 AM Friday morning. Unfortunately, there were two construction zones that required pilot car trains of about five miles each. Those weren’t fun but considering the poor condition of long sections of the Elliott and Dalton highways it’s good that some sections are getting worked on.

Waiting for the pilot car to take us through the construction zone

Shortly after making a quick stop at the Yukon River, we saw a mama moose and her calf. Unfortunately, that was our only large animal sighting all weekend. Our next stop was at Finger Mountain, where we did the official nature walk trail and then followed a sometimes-brushy half-mile social trail over to Finger Rock. Then on to the Arctic Circle sign for the obligatory selfie.

Climbing on Finger Rock

After another 75 miles we were in Coldfoot, where we checked out the Visitor Center and got some intel. They said the entire 10-mile road to Nolan was impassable due to mud. They said the first part of the trail to Chandalar Lake was also muddy but then got better. None of it sounded great.

We set up our tent at Marion Creek Campground and then decided to bike north to Wiseman, which is three miles down a gravel road off the Dalton. It would be 12 miles one-way, with nine miles being on pavement. (Several sections of the Dalton are paved). Eric doesn’t like pavement much, but the area doesn’t have many biking options. Wiseman seemed a good goal. Right after leaving the campground, we checked out a gravel side road to some BLM housing and then a mining road that crossed a creek after about a mile. Nothing too exciting, but Eric was happier for it. Then we headed off for Wiseman with an incredible tailwind and so got to the Wiseman Road quickly.

We got to the Nolan Road turnoff, about a mile before Wiseman, and decided to go as far as we could. We were pleasantly surprised to find we could easily bike four of the ten miles before hitting significant mud. (Be wary of all intel!) 

We turned around four miles in on the Nolan Road when we got to this muddy section

After coming back to the Wiseman Road, we checked out the storm clouds and decided we still had time to check out Wiseman. Neither of us had been there before. It’s a small, funky place with just a few houses and a couple of B&B’s. It has a rich mining history and was highlighted in Robert Marshall’s book “Arctic Village.” Unfortunately, we had time for only a quick ride-through because we had to race the storm back to the campground. 

Welcome to Wiseman!

The Bad (and the Stupid)

After dinner, we decided to do a very short hike up the knoll behind our campsite before heading to bed. It quickly intersected with the trail to Marion Creek Falls. On impulse we decided to follow it even though we had nothing with us except our rain jackets: no water, no bug dope and no bear spray. I had never been on this trail. Eric had done it many years earlier and remembered the trail as not being very good. Not our best decision. 

Rain jacket on to keep the bugs off. This is a better part of the trail.

The hike goes along the bluff above Marion Creek to begin with

Eric had remembered correctly. The trail is only about four miles round trip, but it is narrow, brushy, rooty, and muddy. To make matters worse, the mosquitoes were terrible. It was hot but we put on our rain jackets with the hoods up as bug protection. We contemplated turning around, but when would we ever be here again? We forged on. 

Nice trail. . . NOT!

After two miles of skirting mudholes, jumping over puddles, and constantly swatting at mosquitoes, we made it. The falls are nice, but relatively small and not spectacular. Not really worth the effort. Still, we were glad we could check off that box. And BLM had some boardwalk materials staged over some of the boggy areas so the hike should be getting better. 

Marion Creek Falls

We got back to camp at 11 PM and quickly went to bed to rest for... 

Day Two – First Good Then Bad Then Ugly 

The next morning was sunny and warm and with a slight tailwind. Perfect for my long bike! I left Eric to break camp and started biking. The 30 miles from Coldfoot to Dietrich Camp are paved so I made great time. Eric passed me just as I was approaching Sukakpak Mountain, an iconic site on the Dalton Highway. 

The views kept getting better, and after another 20 miles I started the climb to Chandalar Shelf. I was in the Brooks Range! The climb wasn’t bad, and some cars slowed to give encouragement as I toiled up the steep hill. There was a slight descent and then a long grind up to Atigun Pass. But my perfect weather had changed. Now I had a headwind, and the afternoon clouds were building and spitting some rain. I kept stopping to adjust layers.

View looking back down after getting up to Chandalar Shelf

As I was grinding up in my lowest gear to the pass, a solo biker with a heavily loaded bike came by in the opposite direction, followed by another just 20 minutes later. One was headed all the way to South America, the other just to Anchorage. They were both seasoned long-distance bikers from Europe who have traveled around the world. It was fun to spend a few minutes chatting with each of them. We ended up seeing both the next day in Coldfoot and visited with them as we had breakfast. We had also seen three groups of bikers headed south the day prior. It appears that biking the Dalton may be getting more popular.

Some Bad and Some Ugly but Mostly Good

Once over the pass, I had a nice but rougher descent. The clouds kept getting closer and as I was about 20 miles from the finish, the rain started. When I realized it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon, I got out my rain pants and mitts. Soon I was soaking wet, and the road – and I – became a muddy mess. Luckily, not too many large trucks came by during this time as I would have been even more muddy than I was. (And I was really muddy!) I was getting tired and a little cold, but I knew I was almost there. On the bright side, the rain ended the huge clouds of dust kicked up by the trucks. 

About 11 miles from the Galbraith Lake Campground, I saw a car coming towards me. It was Eric. He was checking to see if I wanted a ride. He is such a great guy! I was happy to see him but, damn it, I was going to get my century ride in today. I wasn’t going to stop 11 miles short of my goal. So, I gave him a kiss and told him I would see him again soon. And I did. After 11 hours and 102 miles and 6000 feet of climbing, I arrived at camp, wet and cold but happy. And the rain stopped just as I got there. Eric made me hot drinks and got a campfire going. After changing into dry clothes and eating some hot food, I was a happy camper, too. 

I made it!

Primo campsite

Eric had had a nice little adventure, too. After setting up the tent, he hiked up to a ridge behind the campground. He wanted to do more, but rain was threatening, and he didn’t have much time after breaking camp, driving, taking photos of me, and setting up the next camp. Have I said what a great guy he is? Eric is the best adventure partner. I am so lucky! He said it was a nice hike and he was happy. Plus, he made it back to camp just before it started raining so he didn’t get wet!

Eric is the BEST!

The view from the ridge above our camp

Go for the Good, But Be Prepared for the Bad and the Ugly

Biking the Dalton Highway is a mixed bag. It is remote, there isn’t a lot of traffic and much of that traffic is oversized big trucks. It seemed like there was more truck traffic then when I had been on the road two years ago. (Probably due to construction from the recently approved Willow Project oil field.) All the truckers were courteous. A few even slowed as they passed though most didn’t. And I didn’t expect them to as they are on a schedule, but those trucks throw up so much dust. Sometimes it was so bad that I couldn’t see after they went by. I got so much grit in my eyes (even wearing glasses) and dust in my lungs. So if you bike the Dalton, be prepared for a lot of dust if it is dry and a lot of mud if it is wet. And be doubly prepared for mosquitoes, especially in July. We got lucky and had just annoying amounts of mosquitoes but nothing like it can be. Bring bug dope and a headnet.

But if you’re prepared for that, you also get some incredible views and periods of near-wilderness solitude. I’ve now biked 175 of the 400 miles of the Dalton Highway. I’m not sure I feel the need to bike the rest. I’ve done the most scenic part. And the long North Slope part between the Brooks Range and the Arctic coast doesn’t sound that appealing. But who knows, somebody might be able to convince me to do the whole thing. Or the part I just did again. After all, given some time I’m sure I’ll remember more of the good and less of the bad and the ugly.