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!

1 comment:

  1. I've always wondered about biking some of the roads and ridgetops in that general area. Looks like a fun and informative day!