Ending a day’s trip in not-Anchorage Alaska means hanging out in $7 Fred Meyer camp chairs, enjoying beers in a grimy roadside pullout amidst drooping, melting snow berms, while listening to the pow-pow-pow of a roadside target shooter trying out some new ammo. But in a good way! It’s light until 9:30pm now so when we got tired of the pistol noise and tried to play the truck radio to drown it out and the radio died because so did the truck battery, we weren’t too worried because there was plenty of light to deal with it. The 40 degree temperatures also didn’t pose any immediate dangers, not like the Aprils of just a few years ago, which featured single degree temps just to drive the point home that there is no spring in Alaska. Winter-winter-winter-winter-breakup-summer!-summer!-WINTER is what we get, with a few minor variations for region.
This year is strange, though, and very warm, so we felt that our 20 mile loop on snowmobile trails via fat bikes was an April bonus, especially because the best of those miles were on still-frozen rivers. I spent a few minutes cautioning my boyfriend to cross well behind or in front of me, to spread out on the rivers, and “ride faster!” across them when he dawdled in the middle. After about half an hour of this, I got an inward grip and we finished the rest of our river ride in a more relaxed fashion. It did take almost an hour to cross all the braids of the Susitna River, so if I was going to maintain my anxiety, it was going to take more energy than I had at the time.
We learned from the start of our relationship that we did not enjoy outings together that were overly focused on goals, pace, or level of exertion. Neither of us would be stoked at being left behind by the other, or being blown up by a too-fast pace, or abandoned to navigate a perilous obstacle alone while the other went on, prioritizing the workout over the partner. This trip, I noted with appreciation the way we each stopped after completing river crossings; watching and waiting for the other to gain the other side before moving on. We never even mentioned it, we both just did it. Later in the ride, I complimented his ability to keep a pace; he responded by admiring my climbing ability. He’s better at this, I excel at that. It’s part of a partnership that makes the whole stronger than its components.
It’s taken a while to get to this point. We are still getting to know each other. But at the core of it is the understanding that the outdoor trips will always be there. The other person, and our health and safety, might not. I’d rather back off a destination and enjoy our time than suffer through the emotional ramifications of an unnecessary epic just for…what? Bragging rights? We haven’t climbed a 20,000 foot mountain together yet though, so I’m sure there is more to learn about each other.
Not a mile into our trip, I broke through overflow and stopped, fretting, for a few minutes, afraid to step forward and break through again, frustration building a bit at watching my boyfriend disappear into the tussocks ahead, oblivious to my predicament. I needn’t have worried, as he paused just moments after entering the trees to wait for me when he noticed I wasn’t behind him. I shouted for him, my voice echoing eerily amongst the stunted trees, and his answering shout was followed by his immediate return (moment captured in his video, above). His ability to cross the ice gave me courage that I wouldn’t sink, and I followed, and the overflow was left behind, forgotten. A formidable obstacle conquered by teamwork. It’s just that way once we get going. When I need to stop and pee, he doesn’t care; he just waits. When it’s time to stop for a beer, we chill, enjoying being just out. We both admit when we’re tired, and no one resents backing off on the pace. It’s nice.
And this landscape is perfect for that style. It goes on forever. There’s no “destination,” no vista, no “there.” You just go until you feel like going back, or finding a way back. Routes are endless and varied. There’s no coasting. No downhill, no halfway point. You just pedal. You get excited about finding out what’s around that next corner or over the next river braid, even though intellectually you know it’s just more of the same. Just pedaling.
During our beer break we tried to imitate the eagle that had perched across the river, screeching its keeekeeeeekeeee call. Everyone thinks eagles sound differently than they do. Their call is difficult to imitate. We wondered what it was like to be a majestic bird, traveling long swooping distances to keen out a call at the top of a huge tree, only to hear two idiots squawking and squeaking at you from across the river. We’re sure it didn’t feel good.
It took us just as long to cross the main river as it did to get to the near shore. Probably five miles across in places, Alaskan rivers are no joke. If you think you’re across, you’re not, just keep on going. If you reach the top of a mountain, okay, maybe THEN you’re across. I wanted to keep following the river north, just going and going, but instead we crossed it, made a loop, and came back to find our way back to the car and our roadside pullout party.
The next day we had another ambition. I had to stop by the ski school in Girdwood to turn in my uniform; I’m done teaching for the season. We figured we’d take advantage of the trip south to try to revisit either Portage Lake or Spencer Glacier. Bad weather loomed, and Portage is its entry point to Turnagain Arm, so I wasn’t surprised when we encountered nasty wind, rain, and six inches of slush on the lake. I used to work at a fire brigade down there, and we’d have to park our cars with the windows cracked to keep them from being blown out by the pressure, so I don’t mess with Portage storms. Some intrepid souls were venturing out, but I’m also not down with trusting a rotting ice layer over three hundred feet of glacial lake with avalanches prone to pouring onto it, and a glacier calving at the other end. Nope! Instead we tried for Skookum and Spencer, but encountered rotten snow. It was possible to ride on the railroad tracks, but we had our Safety Dog with us and I didn’t like the idea of dodging trains with Geardog unleashed. This seemingly irrational fear was justified when, not ten minutes after leaving the tracks, a freight train with five engines rumbled by. We took to the swamps to try to pick our way through on the disintegrating ice, but were stopped by too much pushing. Instead we turned around, and drifted around the swamps until we sorta made our way back to the car.
At the car we saw another old friend, the eagle from the day before, on its way to Whittier. OK, probably not the same eagle, but probably just as humiliated by our immediate clamor as we attempted to “talk” to it. No luck.
A quick stop at ski school, another roadside pullout beer break (this time at a pullout right before the ominous sign by Crow Creek Mine: “TRAVEL PAST THIS POINT NOT RECOMMENDED” rounded out our weekend. At the pullout, we laughed at the sign. Locals careened wildly at the wheels of everything from jeeps to sedans from behind the sign; tourists venturing that far hit the brakes, sat there debating and reading the ominous warning, and universally u-turned. Traffic isn’t heavy there so the shenanigans of the road were entertaining, not intrusive. We also had better luck talking to the crows there; no eagles around to interrupt. Likely the crows chased them off; eagles are chickens, literally and figuratively.
Like all good trips, these trips just fueled the ideas for more trips. Winter weekends are winding down, especially given the warm temperatures and thin snowpack, but I hope for a more ambitious fat bike trip in the same area as the video above sometime in the next two weeks. After that, we’re both heading out of state/country for some vacations; when we return it will be unequivocally spring. Might even see some green before then (oh, please! Come on leaves! YOU CAN DO IT!!!!).
Oh, and the truck battery? Kakiko gamely rode back down the road to the lodge barely visible in the photo. I sat in the truck cab, peeking under the raised hood every now and then to check his progress. Weirdly, no one stopped, though plenty looked at me. Maybe the camp chairs still set up on the tarmac made them think everything was OK. But in any case, Kakiko soon rallied a local to help us out. Our savior was an older man, adorable in his age and Alaskan-ness. He ribbed me for not having jumper cables and then complimented me for being a “handy gal” when I hooked up the cables in deference to his fibromyalgia. He reminisced about the trails in Anchorage and encouraged us to look more closely for “beer stops” along the way when we ride in town. I bet he’d not recognize the Anchorage trails now, choked with horses, stroller-pushing supermoms, fat bikers, and heart-rate clad runners. The tip he gave us for a beer spot along C Street was about a decade out of date, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he’d no longer find beer there, and his bike would almost certainly be stolen if he stopped anyway. I grew up here and hardly recognize it now. Anchorage days are winding down for me, can you tell?
A few minutes later and the truck was up and running, the gentleman returning to his paper and soda at the lodge and Kakiko packing the car while I took Geardog for a minor exploration on the mushing trails. Today I bought a new battery and discovered that the old one was underpowered for my truck, anyway. And it registered low on power, so buying a new one was the right call. That, combined with the new tires I also had to buy and have installed (studded ones went into storage) set me back a planned-for but still-painful thousand bucks. Good thing neither of us are bums, eh? Amidst our working-stiff schedules, we look forward to more explorations; expanding our range as much as we can all over Alaska, the Great Land.