Sunday, August 13, 2023

Escaping the Smoke

Post by Corrine

Bike Red Rock Canyon. Check.

Bike Coal Mine Lakes Road. Check.

Hike to the Castner Glacier ice cave. Check.

Many of us have Bucket Lists. Epic things that we want to do before we die. Things like go on a bike safari in Africa. Hike in Patagonia in Chile. Or float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon (we did that last year.) But I also have a list of several smaller, closer-to-home activities that I want to do. Call it my Little Bucket List. This past weekend, I got to check off a few Little Bucket List activities. Nothing epic but still satisfying. 

Photo from our Grand Canyon trip - a trip of a lifetime

Smoke helped provide motivation for this weekend’s trip. This spring our fire season had been record-level quiet. Then late July was hot. And windy. Wildfires blew up, especially in the Interior. Now we have fires north, south, and east of Fairbanks. Smoke rolled in and didn’t leave. Our air quality plummeted. No fun! So, I started looking for places to get away from the smoke. 

AQI reading from Purple Air website. Above 300 is hazardous!

South of Delta Junction, in the Alaska Range, looked to be less smoky for the weekend. The state cabin at Donnelly Creek State Recreation Site was available Friday and Saturday so I booked it. Eric, feeling pressure to finish some home and other projects, wasn’t sure if he would come. Plus, the weather and smoke forecasts for that area were iffy and changing by the hour. There was a good chance of rain in the Alaska Range. Heading down just to hang out in a cabin didn’t sound fun. And what if it was just as smoky there as home? I waffled all week. I considered canceling the reservation, but I waited too long and lost my chance. It was ours if we wanted it. 

Donnelly Creek State Recreation Site cabin

Then Eric changed his mind. He had made more progress on his projects than expected. On Friday the weather and smoke forecast looked OK for south of Delta Junction. Not great, but better than Fairbanks. Friday morning at breakfast we agreed to go for it. We hurriedly packed up our camping gear and bikes and took off by 9:30 AM. 

We saw a lot of smoke on the drive down, especially between Salcha and Delta Junction. That got us worried, but we were committed to at least checking out the cabin, one of the few road-accessible state cabins in the Interior we hadn’t stayed at (another first!). When we turned south on the Richardson Highway from Delta Junction, we saw skies clear of smoke! And it was mostly sunny! 

Very smoky skies out our car window on the drive down

We hadn’t planned any specific activities, so we talked about that on the drive. I had several things in that area on my Little Bucket List that I wanted to do. Since we were getting to the cabin just after midday, we had time for one in the afternoon. We dumped our stuff and the cabin and headed just 25 miles down the road!

Biking the Red Rock Canyon Mining Road

We decided on this activity first, since the weather was good in that area and neither of us had done it. Red Rock Canyon Road is the informal name for a mining road that heads east from the Richardson Highway at about Mile 213.5. It has been used by Fairbanksans and others for many years to access alpine country, the north side of Rainbow Ridge, and south side of Canwell Glacier, which had a nice, mostly gentle trail heading up the lateral moraine. We had been in the area a few times for different adventures. Then, quite a few years ago, a mining company pushed in a road up the lateral moraine, crisscrossing the old trail. People were sad about the loss of the trail, but it opened a new possibility: biking up the mining road. 

The road starts as smooth gravel as it leaves the highway, but when it heads into the narrow canyon (the whole canyon is not red, just some rocks at the eastern end) it gets really rocky. We knew about the stream crossing about 3.5 miles in, so we brought sandals. I walked the stream, but Eric tried to bike across and almost made it.

Walking through the stream on the way back down.  Eric rode through it.  It was very rocky.

After the stream, we changed back into shoes and socks and had to push our bikes up a couple of very steep, rocky pitches. But then the trail leveled out and we were able to bike a few miles along the lateral moraine of the Canwell. There you have unimpeded views of the glacier and into the heart of the Alaska Range. On the way up we met some friends from Fairbanks, who were backpacking into Rainbow Basin and happy to be out of the smoke. (On the way down, we ran into another group of hikers from Fairbanks escaping the smoke.) 

The trail was steep and rocky in places

After biking about 6 miles, the mining road forks. We chose the one heading east, but soon stopped at another stream crossing. We could see the road continue, zigzagging up the next hill, but it would be a lot of hike-a-bike. Instead, we dropped our bikes and hiked up the side of the stream. After about a mile we got to a nice viewpoint where we could see the head of the valley, rimmed with high, sharp peaks and sporting a couple of small hanging glaciers. We made a loop by coming down an old moraine. 

We dropped our bikes here and hiked up this side valley 

We hiked up from the stream down below

Heading back on bike was much faster than going up, and it was a great fun! This time Eric successfully biked the stream crossing! We raced some dark clouds back to our car, and only got sprinkled on. As we drove back to our cabin, the rain started. Perfect timing! 

Racing the rain clouds back to our car

Biking Red Rock Canyon. Checked off my list! (Though we can go back and explore more!)

Biking Coal Mine Lakes Road

That evening, while on a longish after-dinner walk along the Delta River dike that extends from the recreation site, we talked about Saturday and decided on Coal Mine Lakes Road (officially it’s just Coal Mine Road). Eric had biked it years ago, but I hadn’t done it yet. Eric remembered it being 11 to 13 miles long and all bikeable. (He was wrong on the first – it’s about 13 miles roundtrip – but right on the second.) 

We got going right after breakfast, since it was supposed to rain in the afternoon. We decided to bike from the cabin since the Coal Mine Road, which heads east from the Richardson at Mile 242.1, is only about 4.5 miles north of the Donnelly Creek State Recreation Site (though almost all uphill). The morning was beautiful though chilly, but the climb quickly warmed us. 

Great views while climbing uphill on the Richardson Highway

Coal Mine Road is much less rocky than the Red Rock Canyon mining road. However, it has puddles. Lots of them. Many took up the whole road. Fortunately, I had been ready for this and wore my waterproof socks. That was a good choice, since some puddles were fairly deep, and my shoes got very wet. Eric’s bike is a couple of inches taller than mine. He didn’t have waterproof socks but was able to avoid a complete foot-soaking, though his feet did get damp. 

One of many, many puddles on the Coal Mine Road

Coal Mine Road climbs steadily toward the foothills of the Alaska Range. At the beginning it goes under the Alaska Pipeline, then it passes by several small lakes (many that are stocked by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game) before finally breaking out in alpine country at the end. Years earlier we had camped at one of the first lakes with our kids. 

One of many lakes along the Coal Mine Lakes Road

As we biked up the road, the views just kept getting better. No wind, no bugs, no smoke, no rain, great views, what could be better?! This would be a perfect place for an overnight bikepack, especially if you wanted to fish. 

The road peters out about 6 miles in at the old coal mine. There’s not much left of the mine. A couple of old shot up vehicles. A few pieces of rusted equipment. Since we were almost at the end, we left our bikes so we could avoid a deep puddle. We bushwhacked around the puddle, then hiked on the road a bit and crossed a stream. On the other side we looked at coal from the seam that had been mined. A four-wheeler trail continues from there, but it stays low in a swampy saddle to cross over into the Jarvis Creek drainage. We didn’t have much desire to poke further, so we turned around.

Old machinery and vehicles at the mine site

The road peters out into a soggy, tundra 4-wheeler trail

There is still some coal left in the area

The return trip was quick and fun, though we didn’t do quite as well with the puddles. I took the wrong line through a puddle, got bogged down in some soft muck, and had to step off in the deepest part that went up to mid shin. Eric just laughed and took a photo. Then, just before the last of the puddles, Eric’s karma caught up. He was skirting a puddle when he hit his handlebars on a branch and crashed into the water! He skinned up his knee and soaked his gloves and one foot, but otherwise only his ego was bruised. The ride down the Rich back to the cabin was a fun, fast zoom and helped dry out our soggy parts a bit. 

I should've gone left!

Eric's knee gets a little skinned up from his fall in a puddle

Biking Coal Mine Lakes Road. Checked off my list!

Hiking to the Castner Glacier Ice Cave

After lunch, we still had energy, so we decided to hike to the Castner Glacier ice cave. Eric had been to it a couple of times years before. But I hadn’t done it even though it’s only a mile hike in from the highway. In the past couple of years, it has become very popular, especially in winter. It seems like everybody we know – and many we don’t – has been there except me. (BLM and DOT have put up signs and added parking to deal with all the people.)

We knew it wouldn’t be quite the experience that has been drawing flocks of people. This past spring, part of the cave collapsed. And in summer Castner Creek runs much higher and faster than in winter, plus the glacier is melting, so it’s not safe to go into what’s left of the cave. 

But I figured it would be a nice hike for the afternoon. Despite knowing about its popularity, we were still surprised how many people were there. A couple of the small parking lots were full, and we must have seen close to 25 people on our hike. That seems like a lot for an undeveloped Richardson Highway hike on a weekend with so-so weather. 

The cave is still interesting, but it’s clearly not like it was before the collapse. And in summer it’s gray and dirty, with mud, dirt, and rocks – some fairly large – tumbling from the top. Nonetheless, we were glad we had hiked back in to see it. The sky drizzled off and on during the hike, but it never turned to rain until we got back into our car. Once again, we really lucked out!

Stream-hopping on the way to the glacier

Hiking to the Castner Glacier ice cave. Checked off my list!

Calling It Good

Relaxing in the small, funky Donnelly Creek cabin

After getting back to our cabin and relaxing a bit, we decided that we would rather just head home that night instead of in the morning. We could have climbed Donnelly Dome in the morning, but we have both done that several times and the day wasn’t going to be glorious according to the forecast. We didn’t feel a need to sleep a second night in a cabin. Plus, according to Purple Air, the smoke had cleared out of Fairbanks and the air quality was good. And as a bonus, we could stop at the Buffalo Diner for dinner on our way home. Yum!

Our weekend wasn’t epic, but it was fun. (And I didn’t even mention the near total lack of mosquitoes! We never had to put on bug dope!) We escaped the smoke for a couple of days, and I got to mark a few things off my Little Bucket List! I still have a few things down there and in other places within driving distance of Fairbanks that are on by Little Bucket List. If the smoke comes back, I might check off a few more things before summer is over.

Friday, August 4, 2023


post by Corrine

RAGBRAI: Is it about more than just the bike ride? If you answered yes, then – BINGO! – you’re already on your way to winning! 

RAGBRAI stands for Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. It’s a multi-day group ride across Iowa that attracts thousands. And while it’s about biking, it’s also about everything that comes with an experience like no other. 

So, grab your RAGBRAI Bingo card and play along. See if you can fill all your squares before finishing your 500-mile ride across Iowa. Will you be a winner and get the full RAGBRAI experience? 

Some History 

RAGBRAI started 50 years ago when a couple of newspaper journalists from the Des Moines Register decided to bike across the state and document the small towns they biked through. They invited others to come along and on that first ride in 1973, about 200 people joined them to bike across the state. They did it again the next year and about 2,000 people joined in. It’s been going on ever since and has gotten much bigger. Every year organizers plan a different route across the state (west to east to take advantage of prevailing winds).

Fast forward to 2023, the 50th anniversary of the ride. Around 30,000 signed up this year to ride for seven days with 50-85 miles of biking each day. It’s amazing how many people want to ride bikes across Iowa. Some people join for just certain segments. Organizers were expecting up to 100,000 people on the day from Ames to Des Moines, perhaps setting a new world record! 

The 2023 route

The ride had been on my radar, especially after a few friends did it many years ago. Our son Riley moved to Iowa 5 years ago to attend grad school at the University of Iowa. He is also a big biker, so we had discussed doing RAGBRAI while he was living in Iowa. He mentioned it to Sam, then his girlfriend. She watched some YouTube videos about a couple who did it on a tandem and thought that it looked like a lot of fun, but they didn’t make any specific plans. 

A Wedding First 

The happy couple on their wedding day

Well, Sam and Riley set a date to get married July 16, 2023. This happened to be exactly one week before the start of RAGBRAI. Perfect timing. We would already be in Iowa for the wedding, so why not just extend our vacation and do the ride, too? I talked to Riley about it. He and Sam were on board. Eric was willing to go, even though he hates road biking, crowds, and heat – the trifecta of RAGBRAI! 

We had to figure out many logistics. Sam and Riley had to move out of their apartment during the week between the wedding and the ride, but Eric and I would be there to help them pack. And Riley was starting his new job nine days after the ride ended (they both graduated in May with their advanced degrees), so that gave them just enough time to drive to Albuquerque and get settled. It might be a little crazy, but it was doable. We got it all figured out. The wedding went off great, everything got packed, and by Saturday, July 22, we were in Sioux City and ready to start the 50th anniversary edition of RAGBRAI.

Before and after packing shots - whew, everything fit in the U-Haul!

Heading to the start to drop off bags.  Sam looks like she's not quite sure what she got herself into!


RAGBRAI organizers don’t have any RAGBRAI BINGO cards, but they should. There are so many iconic things one should experience on this ride. Could we do them all? 


There were so many lines! Since this was the 50th anniversary, lines were even longer than usual. The first morning, we stood in line for an hour-and-a-half just to load our bags on the truck that would move them to the finish town for the day. There were lines for the port-a-potties. Lines to get food. Lines to get water. Lines to walk through towns. Lines pretty much everywhere all the time. We had to learn to be patient.

Lines to get into towns

Even lines at the end to dip your wheel in the Mississippi River


Every day, Beekman’s had fun 2 -stroke engines that were churning out homemade ice cream. It tasted so good and was fun to watch it being made.


There were lots of cute farm animals to take photos with. Donations accepted to help a worthy cause. I found the best animal selfie with a camel that resided at a bed and breakfast. Who knew there were camels in Iowa?


There were Slip N Slides everywhere. Some were better than others. I wasn’t very good at them, but it was a great way to cool off and clean off! Totally worth stopping and getting wet.


Boy howdy, did we get this. This year’s RAGBRAI was very, very hot and humid. One of the worst, according to people that have done the ride many times. Most days the heat index was over 100 and at night it never got down below 70. We ended up getting up at 4 AM to start riding our bikes by 5:15 to beat some of the heat. Thousands of others had the same idea and there were always many, many bikers on the road by the time it got light. We ended up snagging some hotels the last 3 nights so we could at least cool off and get some sleep. Otherwise, we lay on our mattress pads in our tents sweating all night. Ugh! 

Cooling off in a kiddy pool set up by some Iowans along the route. So refreshing!

The last night we got to experience severe thunderstorms. Luckily, we had a hotel. Campers had to go into shelters for a few hours and tents that weren’t staked out were destroyed or blew away. Luckily, no tornados, which can happen this time of year.

Storm quickly moving in


So much pie offered by local communities. How could you not eat pie every day? Do not plan to lose weight on RAGBRAI!


Barb and Dennis, on the right, with friends playing dominoes.

The people in the towns of Iowa open their homes to bikers. We ended up staying with a retired couple in Sioux City for two nights before the ride started. This was a great way to meet the locals. Barb and Dennis fed us and regaled us with stories of their life. They allowed us to sleep in their house, use their showers, and would have played cards with us if we had had more time. And they did not want any money for this either. What a great experience! The people of Iowa are so amazing and friendly. 


On one day of RAGBRAI there is an option to do a 100-mile ride. Eric, Sam, and Riley didn’t want to do it, but I did. That extra loop had a lot less bikers on it. It was only an extra 17 miles for the day and I got a patch for finishing it!


The towns all served meals to help raise money for their church, library, fire department, or school. It’s a great way to help a town and get some great food. Our first night, we had the best potato bar followed by an ice cream sundae bar at a local church. The food was plentiful, and it was a great way to talk with other riders. You had to go early as some places ran out of food!


Lots of families set up lemonade and food stands right on the road by their farms. I met so many cute kids this way. Many were raising money for college. The best was a family that offered cold watermelon, freezer pops, and chairs to sit on. They were raising money for a new tractor for the oldest son. I loved meeting these kids and talking briefly with them. And the prices were always a great bargain!


Every day, there was sweet Iowa corn, and often it was free. Pro tip - Carry floss on your bike to help clean your teeth after eating.


Most bikers camp along the way. Many use charter companies that set up their tents, feed them, and move their bags for them. We opted to just do the tents and food on our own although we had RAGBRAI organizers carry our gear. (Some people, called baggers, carry their own gear on their bikes.) There were designated camping areas, but you could also pretty much camp on any public area with grass. I do not like crowds and the first two nights we found places a bit removed from the masses of campers. We had to bike a few miles carrying our duffle bags, but it was worth it. But we did spend the third night right at the main campground surrounded by others. We still usually walked further away so we could have a little space. Camping at RAGBRAI is not like camping in Alaska where there is nobody around you. Bring ear plugs if you want to sleep!

A quieter campsite a little removed from the masses.  The same colored tents all lined up in the distance are part of a charter group.


So many fewer people.  So  nice.

On one day of the ride there is the option for a gravel ride. I took this option. Riley and Sam didn’t. Eric did just one of the gravel legs. The gravel sections were a lot less crowded, which was nice. On the pavement you have so many riders around that you have to constantly pay attention to people passing you and those you are passing. Pretty stressful riding, although at least there are almost no cars to deal with. But on the gravel day, you can just relax and ride your bike. This year the course wove in and out from the main course so you could still experience the pass-through towns to eat and drink. I had a great day on gravel. I highly recommend this if you have the bike for it and want to have less crowds. I did get very dusty but a Slip N Slide near the end of the day cleaned me up nicely!


No explanation needed but I did this several times. All part of the experience!


There are lots of things to spend money on, but I thought the best souvenir was a custom-made bracelet made from a bike spoke. The guy who sells them can make one in about three minutes specifically to fit your wrist. I’m not generally one to wear jewelry but I love my spoke bracelet.


This is another RAGBRAI tradition, but we didn’t do it. Mostly because we didn’t have a magic marker and also because it would have been washed off by our sweat by the end of the first day.


All the small towns in Iowa have swimming pools. Such a great way to cool off at the end of a long hot day of riding. And they often have amazing water slides. Other places had splash pads where you could play like a kid in a water fountain. So much fun and so needed this year with the heat.


The Mr. Pork Chop pink bus was there every day. What is more Iowan than eating a pork chop that was cooked using corn cobs? It tasted great! Bonus points for finding pork loin sandwiches – a Midwest delicacy. We found these, too.


Beer and RAGBRAI go together. Every day, there were several beer tents set up along the route. And sometimes there was even free beer. I don’t drink, but some in our group did partake. Some people basically use the ride as a week-long pub crawl. I don’t know how they can drink beer, stay up on their bikes, and get to their campsites before dark! More power to them.

Getting a free root beer instead of a beer in Amana 


This was one thing that we did not mark off our bingo cards. There were free concerts every night in the towns with groups like Foghat and Lynyrd Skynyrd, but we missed all of them. Why? 1) you had to catch a shuttle to the venue, which was a pain; 2) they lasted past our bedtime, which was especially early once we decided to start to get up early to beat the heat; and 3), they were super crowded. I saw some photos taken by a drone where they estimated a crowd of 10,000 people at a concert. We did get to hear the music one night from our campsite, but that was about it. There was also music all day, both live and with DJs in all the towns you passed through. It really was a rolling party. Many bikers also had speakers on their bikes, so you got to hear snippets of music as you passed each other.


RAGBRAI is filled with so many people doing the route in crazy ways. We saw somebody riding a penny-farthing. We saw a tandem with four people. We saw rollerbladers and unicyclists and people on elliptical bikes. We saw a guy on a double decker bike and one on a bike with 36-inch wheels. We saw guys riding only in red, white, and blue speedo swimsuits. And we even saw a guy riding a BMX bike backwards! (He is from Anchorage!) I tried to talk to all of these crazies. So much fun. 

Recumbent tandem

Really? I can't unsee this now. That looks so uncomfortable. We saw them several mornings. 

Velomobile.  We saw two of these.

4-person tandem

Roller blader!

Double decker bike!


Since you are surrounded by other bikers all day long, it is easy to start up conversations. Riley and Sam had a sign on the back of their tandem that said JUST MARRIED so people were always talking to them, especially other couples on tandems. Many gave them marriage advice, especially about riding a tandem together! And they all asked if this was their honeymoon. They said it was part one – they have plans for a more “normal” honeymoon sometime in the future. 

I rode half of my gravel day with a guy, Miguel, and had great discussions with him. Unfortunately, I never saw him again. We met a wonderful couple who are riding across the country and decided to incorporate RAGBRAI into their ride. We camped with them one night and then ran into them on a couple of other days, too. It’s amazing how sometimes you would find the same people several days later after meeting them. It was fun to hear people’s stories.


Dipping our back wheel in the Missouri with Ian, who rode the first day only

If you made it all the way, you of course, had to do this. 

Dipping our front wheel in the Mississippi


All the towns had silly cut-outs to poke your head through and take a photo. I couldn’t get Riley and Sam to do this, but Eric and I were more than willing to make fools of ourselves!


It’s fun to have biked across an entire state. (I’ve previously biked across Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Washington in bikepacking races. Maybe I’ll have to continue with biking across other states.) And I’m so proud of Sam – who had never biked more than 60 miles at one time – for finishing seven grueling days and over 500 miles on a tandem. 

Eric was the only one in our group who didn’t ride the whole way. As I noted earlier, he does not like road riding, crowds, or the heat, and we had all those things to the max. He wasn’t having much fun and so decided to quit riding on day two. Unfortunately, he had to ride two more days until he got to Des Moines where he was able to rent a vehicle. But then he became our sag wagon, which was very helpful. We didn’t have to stand in line to drop off our bags and pick them up and we could stay in hotels a bit off the route.

Since Eric was our sag wagon, we no longer had to find our bags at the end of each day!

Eric did not like the heat, the crowds of bikers or riding on roads. Can't blame him.

How did we do?

We almost filled our BINGO score card and I feel that we had the full RAGBRAI experience. But would I do it again? Absolutely not! The crowds were overwhelming. The heat was brutal. But I’m 100% happy that I got to experience this insane, amazing ride. If you like parties and people and riding your bike, you should definitely plan on doing RAGBRAI!