In my normal cycling life, i.e. in the Lower 48, I prefer to stay away from cars. I search out dirt roads and work-arounds to avoid traffic. One of the reasons I’ve fallen in love with riding dirt roads is that, by nature, the traffic frequency is generally less and, therefore, I get to enjoy the ride a little more. I live in a world where I assume that everyone is texting and no one is looking and, sadly, I don’t think I’m that far off.
However, in Alaska, whether riding or running, I welcome cars. Cars mean noise, which alerts bear and moose that people are near, which means I don’t have to yell, play my music, ring my bell or blow my whistle. For that moment when a motorized vehicle is present, I get to take a break from playing bear defense and enjoy that the car is doing it for me.
If you’ve ever ridden bikes with Jon and I, you know that we don’t talk much. We are simply not chatty on the saddle. Sometimes I start out talking, but often times default to one of my two excuses, which, to be clear, are totally based in reality: “I can’t hear that well out of my left ear so I really can’t hear you, sorry” or “I really need to save my energy to work on this hill or maintain this pace”. Truthfully, what I am suggesting is that we simply ride and enjoy it, rather than talk throughout the entire journey. When Jon and I ride alone, just the two of us, we are silent. I like it.
When we ride in Alaska we are loud and it’s exhausting. During our first venture in to deep bear country and gravel roads in Valdez, Alaska, we had several anti-bear systems in place first to deter, then to fight back if needed. Our every day standard protocol for ability to make noise on our bikes is a SpurCycle bell mounted to our handlebars. We use it to communicate with fellow riders and each other. We’ve each had one for about 2 years and we use it well and often. In addition to our norm we have a small speaker blasting music from Jon’s bars, a bear bell on my stem, our voices singing or speaking loudly, a whistle, mace and an air horn. The bear bell makes a heck of a lot of noise when riding on gravel. Wow. At one point we came across a women hiking who said, in a slightly annoyed tone, “Yea, I hear ya”. “Fantastic!” I thought to myself. The number one rule of bear safety is to make oneself known so as not to surprise the bear. We don’t care to see them and the feeling is mutual. They want to know where we are so they can vacate.
After that ride in Valdez, Jon and I felt a little bit more confident in our ability to ride in bear country so we rode again in Homer and in Denali National Park. In Homer we rode in a fairly populated area, i.e. not a gravel road, and, while we had all of those systems at the ready, we only employed the speaker. The constant music is also ironic because neither of us likes to ride with it. When I first started riding, my friend who introduced me to cycling rode with earphones so I followed suit. I was a rookie cyclist riding with headphones. Brilliant combo. As my years as a cyclist have pressed on I look back at those days and wonder how I survived. How in the world did anyone communicate with me? How did I hear cars? And, I learned to the art of cycling Boston, in the middle of a city. Dumb. I love not riding or running with music, but in Alaska it’s a local trick to keep your phone with you to make noise while you explore the space around you. So, we obliged. Thank you to Taylor Swift, The Beastie Boys and The Hamilton Soundtrack for your tremendous company over the past few weeks.
One of our goals of this trip has been to explore tourist destinations on two wheels or two feet rather than via van. When we got to Denali National Park we had to figure out what that meant because that place is the size of Massachusetts, literally. Mount Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) is 92 miles from the start of the park. Visitors are invited to drive the first 15 paved miles, but to go beyond that you have to either hike, pedal or take a bus. The full 92 miles takes 8 hours one way on a bus because the roads are fairly primitive. In hindsight we would have planned our attack on the ride differently (I’ll get to that at the end of this), but we had Jon’s parents in tow as they came to visit us for a week in Alaska. They were taking the tourist bus out to mile 66 and then back, making for an 8 hour day. That takes endurance of a different sort, wow! We also ended up doing an out and back of about 40 or so miles. We turned around at about miles 35, roughly 5 miles before the place that is infamous for bears. Looking back, we would have been fine to ride, but there was part of me that felt comfortable with how far we had pushed the envelope and comfort factor.
Before we departed we checked with a ranger to see if our anti-bear systems sounded sufficient. Were we tackling cycling in Denali National Park with the proper level of preparedness? He informed us that, from a distance, a bear bell sounds like birds to a bear and it’s not much of a deterrent. Dangit! I loved riding with the bell because it was so loud that I felt like perhaps I didn’t need to talk or yell as much. He informed us that yelling out occasionally and keeping our eyes open would be good enough. So what exactly does “occasionally” mean to people who don’t live in this environment normally? Well, to Jon and I it meant “fairly constant noise at a somewhat yelling pace”. Translation: We used a high amount of energy to make noise, which, in turn, made an easy and perfect dirt ride way more exhausting than it needed to be.
From a “groad” riding perspective, the dirt road in the park is pure perfection. It’s wide, smooth, swoopy and lovely. With Penny secure and cool in the van at mile 15 (Savage River), our anti-bear systems in place, we headed out. We were extremely lucky to have a crystal clear day and we could already see the mountain from mile 15 and that’s a fairly rare occurrence. Lucky us! About one mile in to our ride, we had run out of things to talk about at a higher than normal volume. It was time to start playing the alphabet game & categories. Places starting with “A.” Sports teams starting at Z and going backwards. Music, anything to do with music starting with A. That game got old, but it kept us making noise. We also sang along to the music we were blasting, announced our presence around blind corners. It was during this ride (and the previous nights solo run that I did) that we learned to love cars. About 10 tourist buses passed us and each time we announced one was coming we got to let our guard down just a bit. It was heavenly. I’ve never been happier to see or hear a bus. The night before our park ride, I was going crazy with pent up energy due to a long travel day to get to our destination. I had to go for a run and Jon didn’t want to join me. This meant a solo run…in bear country. Quickly I abandoned my proposed route of a dirt road near the hotel where Jon’s folks were staying and stuck to going back and forth on the main road for a total of 5 miles. Again, bring on the cars. Happy to see them. 60 seconds of trying to be loud (again following the advice that a bear bell is pointless despite how noisy I might think it is) is a little intimidating. Roaring and zooming cars, motorcycles with loud exhausts, brake compressors were music to my ears.
Back to pedaling. Somewhere around mile 30 or “E” in the music category alphabet game, we came upon a bus stop (people can get on and off the park buses at various mile markers) and humans. HURRAH! One woman said she could hear our voices long before she could hear the music we had been blasting in addition to talking. This was another victory in the volume department. At this bus stop we met the camp hosts of the only campground in all of Denali National Park that you can drive in to past mile 15 (usually books out months in advance and has a 3 night minimum stay). They had bikes and were taking the bus several miles away and riding back. It was then that we finally got to ask a fellow cyclist how loud we truly needed to be. Honestly, the mileage was a synch but the volume production and high level of vigilance was getting a bit old. It was after this conversation that we finally felt comfortable with riding in the park. They told us that it’s not really about making constant noise as must as it is about looking around a lot and making noise if you see or hear anything. Also, don’t go bombing quietly down a hill or around a corner. Pump the brakes and make some noise on descents because that’s usually when the bear or moose can get surprised and that’s when things go poorly for the human.
With this new found, first-hand beta and even a bit more confidence, we rode on and then arbitrarily turned around and headed back to the van. After talking to the camp hosts, we felt like we could ride our normal pace, make slightly less noise (we still sang a bit and had the speaker going) and felt more like ourselves.
Each ride up here in Alaska brings the same need for awareness but also makes us feel more and more confident each time we head out. We’ve got nothing but respect for the wildlife and climate up here in the 49th state, so if that means we spend some extra energy on keeping our guard up rather than pedaling an epic distance, so be it.
Looking back, if able given your timeframe, we would recommend pedaling towards the mountain from mile 15 as long as you want and then taking the bus back. Riding back to the van with the mountain at our backs was still beautiful but it would have been much more powerful to pedal one direction towards the mountain. You do need to reserve a spot on the bus to come back with your bike and you must have a ticket. Therefore, you can’t just pedal out on any given day to an arbitrary spot and expect a guaranteed ride back. It requires planning, but it’s worth it. When we return, that’s how we’ll do it.
As I write this we have taken a slow turn towards the southeast and it time to start working diagonally down and over with a goal of New England by the end of August. Thanks to a recent Outside magazine article, we have our sights set on gravel roads in the Idaho pan handle as well as in Deerfield, MA (D2R2) with plenty of adventures in between.