Normally I am a planner. I like to know exactly what bike route I’m taking, including its elevation profile, expected trail conditions, route features and more. But, the months of February/March are particularly nasty for us bureaucrats, especially those working in finance. With work being crazy, I hadn’t had much time pre-trip to do any research, and started my morning on the Denali without any real sense of what was in store. For those out there considering taking this trip, here’s the Coles notes:
Paxson to Maclaren Lodge: 42 miles
This is a section of trail that is heavily used by snowmobilers, and occasionally piston bully tracked by Alan from Maclaren Lodge. The trail itself can be relatively soft thanks to the heavy snowmobile usage, but it is reliably packed. Essentially, Paxson to Maclaren is split into 2 mirrored 21 mile sections. Starting at Paxson you climb for about 7 miles, enjoy a very brief reprieve, then climb until mile 13.5. From there you enjoy a fun descent down to Tangle Lakes, and enjoy some relatively flat trail until mile 23, where you re-start a climb that will end at MacLaren Summit. At mile 37, you start down, finishing finally at Maclaren lodge. In a Twitterable summary: Climb, descend, flatish, climb, descend. This section took us just under 10 hours in both directions (one day one we went Paxson to Maclaren, and on day three we went Maclaren to Paxson).
Maclaren Lodge to Alpine Lodge: 35 miles
There is about a 2 mile climb out of Maclaren Lodge, but after that you are basically in rolling hills. This section of trail is used far less than the Paxson to MacLaren section, and because of this, the trail is softer and slower.
Alpine Lodge to Cantwell : 67 miles
Don’t ask me, I haven’t a clue.
Our ride started at about 10:30 am on Sunday morning. Within the first meter (or yard for you Yanks), I knew that the 10 mile/hour pace I had imagined in my head was never, ever going to happen. Within the first mile I knew there was a chance that we weren’t going to make it before dark. And at mile 7, when we had been out for 2 hours, I realized that it was going to be a LONG day, but we had really lucked out on our planning. Originally, we had talked about riding the entire highway – at our pace, the 3rd day’s 67 miles to Cantwell would have taken us over 24 hours; and we would have certainly missed our theoretical plane pick up. Even in our preliminary out and back planning, we talked about trying a 77 mile day from Alpine back to Paxson – we would have NEVER made it. In the end, we were going to have a long day 1 and 3, but they were doable. The big day 2 where I thought I might be able to go from MacLaren to Alpine and back (70 miles) wasn’t going to be possible, but an out and back day meant we could go exactly how far we wanted to. Our slower than expected pace wasn’t great, but all things considered, things were actually working out quite nicely.
The views on the Denali were even better than expected. It was amazing how small were in such a majestic, mountain setting. There were moments when someone would be riding a couple hundred meters ahead or behind me and they looked like a little spot of colour on a giant white canvas. If the stunning vistas weren’t enough, there were plenty of furry creatures to spark your interest. We almost literally ran into some moose, along with catching a glimpse of another 6 running at Tangle lakes. I thought the moose were pretty cool, but then we came across a herd of caribou that ran across the trail in front of the Jills. The hillsides were peppered with the animals – hundreds of them hanging about (a questionable location to be lounging considering it was right inside the “Federal Subsistence Hunting Area” sign, a zone that appeared to be well used, if the blood droppings on the trail were any indication).
Even though day 1 was long and we finished in the dark, we were also lucky enough to finish on the doorstep of MacLaren Lodge, our home away from home for 2 nights. Our cabin was warm and comfortable; and Allan, Susie and Sean were awesome hosts and kept us well fed (Susie even had a breakfast burrito delivered to me via snowmobile on day 3). Their puppies Koda, Jackson and Bandit kept us well entertained.
And of course there was the company: Jenn, Jilly-Ho (Jill Homer) and Jill Missal. The four of us are our own little Pecha Kucha pack. And like any pack, we all bring it to it something a bit different. In fact, perhaps it’s true what they say about dogs and their owners – maybe we bring to the group some of the same qualities that our own dogs have.
I’ve never actually met GearDog, Jill Missal’s canine companion, so I’m going to have to admit up front that a lot of this is just what I imagine GearDog to be like based on some photos and some stories. GearDog, like Jill, is a Search and Rescue expert; a well trained dog that knows its shit. I imagine as an avalanche dog, GearDog is also very brave. Without Jill, I think we may have had to turn around at mile 8 when we encountered a moose on the trail. None of us knew what to do, and although I was willing to partake in Starbuck’s favourite trick (bark when you are far away from the thing that scares you, but back away if it comes anywhere near you) that was the extent of my contribution. Jill suggested we get close together, and slowly approach the moose making noise to try to get it to move off the trail. We all agreed and decided to ride together towards the moose (although our definition of “together” was sending Jill 20 meters ahead of us while we played chicken shit behind her). Thanks to her, our day 1 was a success.
In a lot of ways, I’m similar to Starbuck out on the trail. I love being outside, I’m happy to keep moving for several hours – but you’ll hear an audible whine escape my lips if I’m asked to sleep on anything but a duvet pillow-top. And, like my dog, I’m a bit obsessed – for him it is sticks, but for me it seems to be bikes – wanting to ride even when a chafed vajayjay and sore knee suggest it’s time to stop. For anyone who’s heard my tales of Starbuck and his penchant for biting his friends, that you’ll just have to ask the other girls about.
It’s important that I clarify a few things before comparing Jenn to her dog Mingus. First off, I have no evidence to suggest that when I leave a room, Jenn rips apart the blankets and dry humps the bed. This being said, I didn’t actually check the rooms at Glenallen or MacLaren to confirm. Secondly, I have never detected traces of poopsicles on Jenn’s breath and I’ve never seen her troll the outhouse for snacks. But, like her dog, Jenn has a special way of just looking more excited about life than anyone else. With Mingus it’s the way his little knobby tail frantically waves back and forth – with Jenn it’s her way of celebrating each new view with equal excitement (even when I think it all looks generally the same). Jenn has one other trait that is a bit Mingus-like. When you’re out with Mingus on a walk, he’s never usually beside you, he always seems to be hanging a couple meters behind. He never actually falls further back, he just seems content to enjoy himself at his own pace. Unlike Jenn, Mingus doesn’t operate a camera that produces photographic proof that while the rest of us our riding Jenn is taking jumping shots.
Here comes the most difficult comparison because Jilly-Ho doesn’t have a dog, so instead I’m just going to completely make one up. Jill Homer is through and through a husky. Not a fancy, prancy show-dog husky, a true-blue sled dog husky. There is no doubt in my mind that she could keep moving for days, or perhaps even weeks; surviving on whatever she needs. In a husky’s case this would probably involve foraging for garbage and small rodents. For Jill, it’s foraging for Sour Patch Kids and frozen salami. If there had been no lodge on the Denali Highway, I imagine we would have eventually come upon Jill curled up nose to tail in a snow bank; or sitting with her nose pointed in the air, smiling at the sky.
In the end, it really is the pack that makes Pecha Kucha good times. So a big thanks goes out to my fellow lady friends for 3 days of adventure. You can read their version of events on their respective blogs: GearGals, Jill Outside and for all her pics Jenn’s Flickr. I’m excited about Pecha Kucha III – Let’s Get Wet; our potential beach fat bike trip. What they don’t know is that I’ve got a secret weapon – I’m part labrador.