Friday, September 24, 2021

When Life Gives You Lemons. . .


Post by Corrine

I’m supposed to be on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, floating through the warm and wondrous Grand Canyon. Instead, I’m crouched over my bike in the cold Talkeetna wind trying to get a stupid tubeless tire to seal so I can finish my ride and get back to our warm cabin. Sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way you want it. 

Replacing the Grand Canyon with…What?

This past week wasn’t quite what Eric and I had originally planned. We were supposed to be on a three-week float of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, but due to exploding COVID cases in Alaska and elsewhere we decided to push that trip back a year. Still, I kept one week of vacation time to do something. But what? Go backpacking near Denali? Bike all the roads out of Nome? Explore Homer?

Crossing the railroad tracks 5 miles in on the Chase Trail in Talkeetna

As my vacation time grew near, the weather forecast all over the state looked grim. Nome -windy and rainy. Alaska range – snow. Kenai Peninsula – cold and rainy. Colder than normal temperatures were settling in all over the state. Not a great week to be outdoors. We weren’t really looking for Type 2 fun, and we didn’t want to camp in the cold and rain. (I know, I know, we’re getting soft.) But was our only option to stay in Fairbanks and work on home projects? That seemed like a waste of vacation time.

So, as usual, I obsessively checked the weather forecasts all over the state. The best weather seemed to be midweek, south of the Alaska Range along the Parks Highway. Not great weather, but better than anywhere else. Eric got out our Alaska Gazetteer and we started plotting possibilities. Getting up in the mountains wasn't an option with all of the snow that had already fallen up high. We decided to drive to Talkeetna, go exploring, then play it by ear. I rented a cabin at Denali Fireside Cabins for two nights. Even if we got cold and wet during the day, we would have a warm and dry place to stay at night. We could check out some trails that we had never been on before, and the fall colors would probably be prime south of the Alaska Range. 

Leaving our cabin in Talkeetna. 

On our way through Denali and Broad Pass, it was windy and snowing and the roads were slushy. Hmm, not great. As we got further south the precipitation stopped and the temperature warmed. But the wind picked up. After dinner, I took a walk while Eric nursed a sore knee he had tweaked a couple of days before. The wind got stronger. By the time I got back to the cabin, our power was out. It remained out until about 4 AM. Luckily, our cabin stayed plenty warm.

Exploring Talkeetna Trails

The next morning was cold and windy but dry, so we decided to check out the trails at Talkeetna Lakes Park, a Mat-Su Borough park. This system comprises about 10 miles of trails around several lakes that are great for hiking and biking in summer and cross-country skiing in winter. They are just a couple of miles out of town, so we biked to them. The trails were in great shape and super fun for biking except for all the beetle-kill spruce trees that had come down in the windstorm. We had to stop and go over or under trees about every half mile. It was slower going than we expected but we adjusted. We were able to shove some trees off the trail, and Eric was able to cut through others with his handy folding saw. 

But with a little persistence we were able to do all the trails. One trail is singletrack, while the others are wide enough for skate skiing. The singletrack trail is winding and fun, with a few swoopy downhills. The others were fun just to cruise along. We got lots of lake views, though with the wind it was chilly on the lakeshores. 

X Lake

When we finished the trails, I wanted to take an alternate route back to town, but Eric decided just to head back to the cabin to rest his knee, which was still bothering him. I had great fun on some lesser used roads, but when I got back to our place 45 minutes later, Eric was nowhere to be found. He had gotten distracted by some other trails and took longer than me to get back! I was a little miffed, as I was hungry and couldn’t get into our cabin or car for food, but he was back a few minutes later, and I quickly forgave him over lunch. 

Biking backroads back to Talkeetna

We checked the weather again and the next day looked to be cold but sunny and no winds between the Alaska Range and Anchorage, so we decided to head down and bike the Eklutna Lakeside Trail.

But first I wanted to explore the Chase Trail north of Talkeetna. Eric escorted me to the railroad bridge over the Talkeetna River on the edge of town. I kept going while Eric headed back to rest his knee. (Though he got distracted again and did more biking than he planned!)

ATVs barely fit on the railroad bridge side access for the Chase Trail. Bikes fit fine!

The Chase Trail is a mostly flat ATV trail that follows the railroad track for about 5 miles before climbing up and meandering through the woods for another 9 miles or so. The trail started to get muddy and wet, so I turned around after about 7 miles. 

I was about 2 miles from Talkeetna when I got my flat. I pulled out a fairly good-sized nail, but my tubeless tire didn’t want to seal. I tried to put in a plug (which worked for me on the Trans South Dakota), but I couldn’t insert it. I called Eric to come help. He agreed but said I should start walking back if I was that close to town. I agreed, though I did grumble a bit. 

As I walked my bike I occasionally stopped and tried to pump up the tire. I finally got the hole to seal, but the tire kept losing air. Eric finally showed up and noticed the tire was leaking around the base of the valve stem. We were able to pump the tire up enough for me to gingerly bike back to Talkeetna, where Eric had parked our car at the Chase Trailhead.

Downtown Talkeetna

Back at our cabin, Eric took the tire apart and found the valve stem was shot. Fortunately, he keeps a spare in his repair kit. My tire was good to go in no time. I was frustrated that I hadn’t been able to fix the problem myself but happy that Eric had the parts and know-how, especially since the only bike shop in Talkeetna wasn’t open until the weekend. 

Looking north before leaving Talkeetna - cold but clear views of Denali and the Alaska Range

Eklutna Lakeside Trail

The next day we headed to Eklutna. Neither of us had ever biked the Eklutna Lakeside Trail, a State Parks trail. In fact, Eric had grown up in Anchorage and had never even been to Eklutna Lake! It was time to change that.

The Eklutna Lakeside Trail follows an old roadbed.  It follows the lakeshore for about 8 miles before going farther up a mountain valley another 5 miles or so. At about 13 miles in, there’s a side trail to Serenity Falls. The trail is accessible by ATV, hiking or biking in the summer and snowmachine or skiing in the winter. There are two public use cabins and three campgrounds along the trail. We had thought about renting the Serenity Falls Cabin for a night, but the forecast was calling for snow starting on Thursday and getting worse on Friday. We decided to do the whole trail in a day and then head home on Thursday before the roads got bad. 

This trail was fun to bike with lots of spectacular lake-and-mountain views, especially since a bit of snow had fallen. The white snow really set off the fall colors. An old roadbed runs along the entire lake and is open for ATV use, but there are lots of singletrack trail options for non-motorized use that split off from and then re-enter the ATV trail. Those side trails hug closer to the lakeshore with views that keep begging you to stop. Sometimes the trail is too close to the lakeshore! Some trail sections are starting to erode onto the beach, but they are short, and we could walk our bikes around even the worst spots. 

Motorized to the left, non-motorized to the right. 

At the far end of the lake, there is just the old roadbed that is open to all uses. It follows the Eklutna River up the valley toward the Eklutna Glacier. The roadbed/trail is in really good shape except for lots and lots and lots of puddles. I was nervous about biking through them and walked around the first few. But there were so many. I started following Eric, who wasn’t having any problems. The puddles weren’t very deep, but you couldn’t see the bottoms and some were a bit rocky. (By the end I was biking through them all. Well, except one where I stopped and put a foot down. But I was wearing my waterproof socks, so my foot stayed warm and dry.)

There was ice on the edges of the puddles and we ran into more snow the further up the valley we went. The autumn colors were at their spectacular peak. Between the greens and yellows of the trees, the snow-capped mountains and the reflections in the lake, it was a visual feast for the eyes. It took us forever to go the 13 miles because we had to keep stopping to take photos. We stopped to check out the Serenity Falls Cabin as nobody was there. The cabin sleeps 12 and has a wall of windows that gives you a glorious view of the valley. The wood stove was still warm, so we ate lunch before heading to the falls. This would be a great place to rent! 

We were underwhelmed by the falls (which you can see from the cabin), but the side trail is short, so we didn’t invest a lot of energy getting to them. And they made for a good turnaround point. The roadbed goes on for another quarter mile or so, then you can follow a footpath toward the Eklutna Glacier. But we were ready to turn around. With that and the East Fork trail, we could easily spend more time back here. We did see a few other bikers and several 4-wheelers, but the area never felt crowded. It was an incredible time to do this bike ride, so that worked out well!

Serenity Falls

East Fork Eklutna River

Curry Ridge Trail

We spent the night at the Lake Lucille Lodge in Wasilla and headed north the next day. The forecast called for several inches of snow near Denali that evening. We didn’t want to get caught in that. But we knew we had time for a hike to break up the drive. 

As we drove by the K’esugi Ken Campground, we decided to hike the new-ish Curry Ridge Trail (both are part of the Alaska State Parks system). A cold wind cut across the parking lot as we switched into hiking clothes, but it wasn’t snowing yet. The trail took us up to a ridge with phenomenal views of the Alaska Range and Denali. It was fairly cloudy but we had views the whole time and the bigger mountains did come out for a few minutes during our hike. The trail is wide with a very modest grade, so easy hiking. We met a State Parks trail crew that was out clearing brush and moving downed trees. We thanked them for making the trail even nicer. 

The Alaska Range peeks out below the clouds.

On top of the ridge the trail makes a loop, taking in a high point and following a lake for a ways. We didn’t linger on top, as the cold wind was even stronger up there, but we had a great time soaking in the views. 

We headed back down, running into the trail crew again and seeing a few other hikers. We ended up hiking 7 miles, a nice break from the road.  We then finished our drive home, arriving several hours before it started snowing.

Trail crew clearing brush.

Making Lemonade 

Even though our vacation didn’t work out as planned, we had a phenomenal few days away from home. We couldn't change the weather but we could change our mindset to fit what Mother Nature threw at us.  We didn’t do anything epic, but we got to explore new trails and see some incredible Alaska scenic landscapes. We are really thankful for all the local and state parks in our state. Sure, we are missing the Grand Canyon, but it will still be waiting for us next fall! 

Biking around Talkeetna

Eklutna Lakeside Trail

Curry  Ridge Trail


Sunday, September 19, 2021

Tofty Road to the Yukon River and Back

Post by Corrine

Tofty Road?  Never heard of it. Where and what is it?  These are the comments I get from people when I mention this road.  There isn’t a lot of information about it on the web, so I decided to do this blog post after biking it.

The Tofty Road (Road to Tanana) was put in by the Department of Transportation so that residents of Tanana, a village of about 250 people near the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana rivers, would have an easier way to get to Fairbanks. It begins in Manley Hot Springs (a small town 150 miles from Fairbanks) and ends 50 miles away at the Yukon River, not at the village itself. The terminus is 6 miles upstream of Tanana and on the opposite bank.  In the summer, villagers use boats to access the road. In winter they put in an ice road.

The village of Tanana is at the base and to the left of the dark green hill.

The road opened to the public 6 years ago and I remember thinking it might be fun to bike. Then earlier this summer some friends of mine did an epic trip, biking from Fairbanks up the Dalton Highway to the Yukon River, packrafting down the Yukon, then biking out the Tofty Road and back home.  They said the road was good biking with a few stream crossings.  One, Sullivan Creek, was at least knee deep.  But this fall, new culverts were put in on Sullivan Creek fixing that problem.  Hearing that and seeing that the weather looked to be sunny (although cold) this weekend, I decided to go on one more micro adventure.

New culvert to divert water under instead of across the road

I left Fairbanks Friday afternoon for the 3 hour drive to Manley. See my previous post about biking this highway. It was a gorgeous drive with fall colors still glowing.  I planned to camp in Manley but when I got to the campground, it was just a gravel parking lot with some grassy areas with picnic tables by the Hot Springs Slough.  It was right off the main road as you come into town.  It would be okay in an RV but not so great for tent camping.  

Fall colors still glowing on the Elliot

So, I drove down to the Tanana River to see if I could find someplace better to camp, but that parking lot was filled with vehicles and boat trailers. There was no place to set up camp plus it’s private Native land so I headed back to town to set up camp by the slough.  I was able to put up my tent in some trees for a slight bit more privacy.  

Tanana River

View from my campsite.  The slough was really that color.

About 200 yards to the left was a house, but I could pretend I had privacy in the trees.

I got up early the next morning and was biking by 7:30 AM after eating breakfast and breaking camp.  It was only about 25 degrees but the sun was shining and there was just a bit of a breeze.   The temperature never got above 40 degrees all day and the wind picked up a little in the afternoon.  I was never cold (except my toes for the first few hours) but I was never really warm, either.  

Headband, wool hat, neck warmer, thermal bike pants and shirt, windbreaker, rain jacket and rain pants, waterproof socks and toewarmers.  Almost warm enough!

Sunrise a few miles in on the road

The road is good gravel with a few potholes that weren’t a problem to avoid on my bike.  I’m not sure how often the road is graded but it was in excellent shape the day I was there and it could have been navigated with a low clearance 2-wheel drive car.  I think it would be a little muddy and slippery after rain, but I didn’t have to worry about that.  It’s pretty narrow for 2 cars but there is plenty of room for cars to pass bikers.  And plenty of pull outs, too. There are no services anywhere on the road, so you need to be self-sufficient.  There are plenty of creek crossings so water is not a concern.

A lot of the road passes through both Doyon and Tozitna lands, so you can’t really explore on side trails since these are private.  It would be great to bikepack to the river and camp, but this isn’t an option as the land around the river is Native-owned with no trespassing and no place to really camp.  You can access the river, but out of town people must park their rigs about 1/2 mile up from the river and once that lot is full, you are out of luck. I talked to a Native patrolman who said he has turned people back.  The lot looked pretty full when I checked it out on my way back, but it is hunting season. There is a parking lot closer to the river where the people of Tanana keep their vehicles, but others aren’t allowed to use it, although the patrolman said it was okay for me to eat lunch there.  

Yukon River

Parking lot for non-Tanana people.  Pretty  full.  All of these people were out on the Yukon River.

The road is mostly rolling hills.  There are some fairly steep grades of 12-13% but most are more like 6-8%.  Almost every climb is less than a mile except the climbs out of Boulder Creek and the climb back up from the Yukon River on the way back.  So, lots and lots of short little climbs and short fun downhills.  I ended up with over 10,000 feet of climbing for the 100 miles.  I biked through forested areas that would open to views of mountains in the distance.  I had glimpses of the Yukon River 20 miles before I got there.  I biked through a large burn area.  It wasn’t the incredible mountain vistas of the Denali Highway or Denali Park Road, but it was very nice.  The fall colors were a bit past prime but still lots of yellows in the birches and aspens.

The road had very little traffic.  I think I saw maybe 20 vehicles all day (and some of them were probably the same people driving back and forth.  Everyone was in camo and driving either a white or red truck looking for moose, so hard to tell apart.) There were also a few people from Tanana making their way to or from Fairbanks.  But most of the time, I was all alone.  A few people would stop and marvel that I was out there biking. Of course, when I told one guy that I had only biked from Manley and not Fairbanks, he did say I was a wimp!  

Some distant views of mountains

There were a few trailers with 4 wheelers parked where people had set up hunting camps. I came up on one after a short steep pitch.  A guy congratulated me on making it up the steep climb then invited me to sit by his fire for a bit to warm up.  I only had 15 miles left and plenty of daylight so when he also offered me a Dr. Pepper, I gladly accepted.  PJ was quite the character.  He was camping with his “boys” who had to go to work Monday but he was planning on spending 2 weeks out there.  They were looking for moose but hadn’t seen any yet, although they had bagged a lot of grouse.  (I couldn’t believe how many grouse I had seen earlier in the day, pretty much a covey every quarter mile.  I almost hit a few of them!)  He told me he was now 60 and that at that age, hunting and trapping and fishing licenses were free so he was spending a lot of time doing just that.  He used to own the McLaren River Lodge on the Denali Highway but sold it a couple of years ago.   He had just finished putting in a rustic outhouse, and I got to be the first one to try it out!  It was quite nice and better than squatting in the bushes!  He offered to drive me back to Manley but I said no, I wanted to get my whole 100 mile ride in. Plus, I had done most of the hard work already.  

PJ holds court while one of the "boys" splits wood

Rustic outhouse with a view. Notice the roof to keep off the rain

I thought I would see a lot more wildlife since this is a pretty remote area with minimal traffic but maybe all the hunters scared them away.  I saw lots and lots of grouse, one mink or ermine that crossed the road and I did see some ravens harassing a juvenile bald eagle. That was pretty cool.  I did have one wildlife sighting about a half a mile from the end.  I was bombing downhill when I heard some thrashing to the right of me and l looked over to see a cow moose on an almost collision course with me on the road.  I yelped and she veered off to the side instead of coming out on the road. I stopped to take a quick picture, but I couldn’t tell if she was mad or not, so I booked it out of there and back to my car. 

All in all, it took me just under 11.5 hours including stops to go the 100 miles.  It was a good but chilly day on the bike.  I think this road would make an awesome gravel bike race if you could figure out the logistics with DOT and the Native corporations.  Might have to think about that for the future.  It’s definitely worth biking.  And I heard that the Manley Hot Springs Lodge will be reopening next summer, too!