Bicycle Hitchhiking From Seward to DenaliSitting in the saddle of my hybrid commuter with one hand on the bars and my other thumb in the air, I found myself in the sprawling frontier metropolis of Anchorage. Unsure of my particular whereabouts and immediate destination, SUV’s, 18 wheelers, and metro buses whizzed by, just beyond my left shoulder at break neck speeds. “Back in the hectic city,” I reckoned to myself. I had been living near the podunk community of Moose Pass centrally located beneath the snow capped mountain tops of the Kenai Peninsula, approximately 100 miles south of Alaska’s international hub.
My intentions were to reach Denali National Park and hook up with a good friend to spend a few days riding out of the park. The plan sounded great over the phone, but here I was in suburbia, alone on a big freeways shoulder, and feeling a lot less sure of myself. I had but one other hitchhiking trip under my belt, but this time I was on my bike with skepticism beating at my head. My main worry was that no one in their right mind would pick up someone riding a bicycle.
The soft drizzling rain beneath typically darkened skies added to my growing uncertainty. Nothing had gone wrong, though, and I did have some reason to be optimistic. I arrived in Anchorage after just one ride and was dropped off near the Glenn Highway heading north. Still, starting off on any hitchhiking trip leaves me feeling out of my comfort zone, mainly due to all the negative press the beatnik form of travel received during my formative years in the late 70’s and early 80’s. During past hitchhiking travels I had been blessed without a negative incident, so I tried to keep my hopes up as I spun for a half hour before catching a 10 minute ride out to Chugiak. After pedaling for another five miles, some nice drywallers chucked me in the back of their work van and ran me 30 miles up to the small roadside community of Houston. I rode up to a busy roadside restaurant at the edge of town and stuck out my thumb. Within a few minutes a guy picked me up across the street and said I could throw my bike into the back of his capped beat up pickup truck. Things went just fine until he pulled into a large gas station in an even smaller community called Willow, where he then offered to take me around the corner to see some woman who provided oral sex. As I puckered my lips shut and vigorously shook my head "no", I was thinking, “This guy is dangerous!”
Safely out of his truck, I immediately caught a ride in the back of a moving van with a long, golden haired, iron pumping muscle dude in a blue denim vest on his way to the Telkeetna Bluegrass Festival. This Alaskan version of Fabio swore he "never passes up a hitchhiker." In the black darkness of the van’s cargo area sat two guys named Mike. Coincidently, the Mike on my right had a similar run in with psycho who had made the freaky proposition no more than 15 minutes ago. With Mike, he proposed as soon as the door opened. Mike exclaimed, "Your eff-ing sick, man," and slammed the door in his face with disdain, then walked away in astonishment and disarray. Soon after, the other Mike shared that he was on the trail of Chris McCandless, the subject of John Krakauer’s novel, “Into The Wild,” to read the deceased's journaling on the walls of the infamous blue bus.
Dropped at Telkeetna Junction, I waited and waited and finally decided to pedal off into the 98 mile section of barren land void of industry and service comforts. As the miles passed slowly beneath my tires and sagging thumb, my optimism faded and skepticism grew. Cars, trucks, and RVs passed me by, while my hope plummeted and despair and loneliness set in. I did not want to be riding the bike today as there was no real benefit to it in terms of chunking out the big mileage needed to get me to Denali. I sunk and sunk and sunk, wallowing in self pity, but then I proclaimed to my soul, "So be it.” Next I recited the Serenity Prayer rehearsed so much in AA and then began to relax from self inflicted stress. As I did that, an early 70's model wintergreen pickup truck pulled over and a bearded gentleman with glasses stepped out to open the tailgate for me. On this evening, I would make Denali National Park by nightfall. With the Parks Highway section under my belt, I hooked up with my friend, Matias, later the next day.
The Bus Ride to Wonder LakeWe lucked out and were able to get perfect accommodations into "The Park." We hopped on the last departure of the day at 4:30pm with only eight other people on the bus, six of which were Asian and did not speak English. Our old yellow school bus meandered slowly along the road, the sky spackled gray with patches of blue. Rocky crags cut the horizon and cool rain clouds misted throughout the August air. The first wildlife we saw was caribou followed by a brown bear on a river bed below the elevated dirt road. A few minutes ahead at Igloo Creek, there was a vibrant double rainbow that hovered above a grizzly.
Atop Stony Hill, I woke from a 20 minute snooze when Matias spotted a wolf! The cocky driver yelled out, "Hold on, we're getting down there, now!" Our bus squirreled around the corners and tight turns, spitting chunks of rocks up into the bus's wheel wells. Loud thunking noises from under the seats had us tourists grabbing for security wherever it could be found. We buzzed down the hill, wide eyed at Ranger Rick's hairball efforts to position us for a close encounter with a hunting wolf. The lanky gray canine moved briskly along the banks of a stream bed until it trotted up onto the road a mere fifty feet in front of us. We plastered our faces against the windows and gazed out as it jogged down the middle of the road for several minutes. Before we knew it, the wolf veered off to continue its hunt for ground squirrels. At one hole, the wolf pulled out a plump one and swallowed it whole! As the road swerved up along the hillside, the predator shrunk into the valley landscape. Still pinching himself with glee, the driver suggested that everyone exchange high-fives for witnessing such a rare Denali encounter.
We pulled into Wonder Lake Campground around 9:45 and made a huge pot of stew before pitching camp. Moments shy of midnight we basked in the soft orange glow of dusk and marveled at a brightly hued rainbow that arched over the shoreline of the lake. There, near the water, a cow moose pranced in and out of sight. It was like a typical Alaskan dream come true.
The Ride Out
We traveled out of the hills and out onto a flat stretch of road a couple of miles long. Off to side of us, about 40 meters out, rose a gigantic set of satellite dish-like antlers. The sharply pointed rack flared into the skyline from beneath the bush. Without disturbing the moose we pondered the scene for a spell and then road into the Eielson Visitor Center’s scenic point some 200 meters above the valley floor. Even though the valley is weaved with meandering stream and riverbeds and the McKinley foothills are a bright rustic shade of red, we seem to be the main attraction in the parking lot. An eager bunch of binocular clad, camera happy tourists eyed us up and down and shoveled us with one liners and other gibberish chatter as they offloaded the bus. Yesterday we were in their shoes, but today we were Denali Adventure Cyclists!!! A couple from San Francisco complimented our diverse lunch of “wilderness menu items.” Our meal consisted of a bagel topped with canned herring, canned beets with mayonnaise packets, canned peaches, and apple sauce topped peanut butter on graham crackers for dessert. With 17 miles down, Matias and I were scheduled to ride another 55 miles to Igloo Creek campground where we had overnight reservations. Within those 55 miles we had to ride over five of the eight passes in the park; Thorofare, Stony Hill, Highway, Polychrome, and Sable Pass.
After lunch we pedaled out in search of our first big downhill; a sloppy four mile descent into the valley where we had spotted Canis Lupis the day before. I rocketed by my pal who slowed by knobby mountain bike tires. 1.5" road slicks streamlined my bike with a constant flow of silty mud. It no longer had a name brand, but rather it was now a Denali clay-pan special. My black nickered sweat pants mimicked the mud as well. We were getting soaked, but Matias looked a lot worse off because his jacket was neither waterproof nor had a zipper that worked. Gosh, it was hilarious though, to watch his jacket blow parachute up like a big blue berry on the down hills!!!
We took our next break at the Tolkat River Bridge, a place famous watching bears, but we saw none. It was here that I noticed the watery air bubbles oozing from my shoes when I put pressure on my tip toes. Everything we wore was gray from the road conditions and my knees and shins were numb from the wheel spray and chilly winds. Topping out on Polychrome placed us on a mesa or plateau, so the ride up Sable was the easiest pass of the day. At the summit sign of Sable Pass the road turned north and we knew we were close to camp. We hurled ourselves into the seven mile descent down the road’s long, sleek turns. Man, SEVEN MILES!! Our momentum carried us right on by the entrance to the campground and we exchanged high fives as we slowly coasted on in for the night. We were enthralled to strip down and out of our soggies and fill our gullets with multiple servings of veggie stew and hot tea. Ahhhh… respite.
The next day, it seemed like winter had overrun autumn with record speed in Denali National Park. The lone yellow tree we saw from the buss the day before was now bare and without any hint of fall color. The saw-toothed peaks in the distance were topped with fresh snow, too. Despite the morning chill, I was warming quickly from a losing battle with dehydration, so I was determined to undermine the problem and pound fluids on a consistent basis. On down the way at road’s edge, a collection of Ptarmigan cuddled safely in the alder brush enjoying the warmth of sun breaking through the sky's billowing clouds. We soon rolled into the Teklanika River Campground and found a water faucet. Filling our bottles was a relief, but for me the wildlife safari aspect of this ride was topped off when we caught a glance of a black and orange fox patrolling the grounds for table scraps.
Sanctuary and Savage River Campgrounds are separated by Primrose Ridge, one of the most aesthetic and possibly the curviest section of DNP. Surmounting the five mile climb out of the valley burdened our legs and the increased bus traffic frequently startled us out of our nonchalant riding manner. We would hear the rumbling hum of the yellow school buses coming and then, just like that, they were gone and we were left to peddle in quiet peace. The road flattened out and skirted the Primrose ridge line and although I have never been to Africa, looking out across the Sanctuary River drainage reminded me of the Serengeti plains seen on the National Geographic specials. It was a vast expanse of land unlike I have ever seen before, absorbed in Alaskan wildlife. The alder thicket looked like carpet and occasionally, stands of black spruce sprouted above the landscape. I needed to pull over to adjust my load and as I did I noticed some movement in the brush. A caribou with a huge radio antenna set of antlers foraged within a stone’s throw. A car crept up behind me and I motioned to the driver to stop. A guy got out and shrugged his shoulders in question to me until I gestured at the big game right in front of me. Excitedly, he hurried his two boys out of their sleep and they took to tapping on each other’s shoulders, pointing, and giving hugs and stuff. I quietly waved goodbye and the father gestured his thanks and appreciation.
The age of average tourist on the buses seemed to be in the neighborhood of 55 to 60 and as we pulled into a scenic overlook, one of these ladies taped some video footage of a few ptarmigan scurrying about the edge of the road. I giggled with anticipation and quickly predicted the worst. We would scare the birds, and then the tourists would frown, sneer, and mock us under their lowered voices. As we neared, the birds turned and made a bee line towards the lady’s ankles. I thought she was going to jump out of her slippers with fright, but she just kept on taping. Folks started to take notice of us and drew near to our presence, just as we were focused our sights on their full service hot beverage bar at the door of the bus. “Oooo…” we salivated beneath the muffling breezes and I knew this was an opportunity we should not miss out on. Matias shoved his mug into my chest and ordered, “Do not to come back without services rendered.”
I moseyed between six or eight clusters of folks who cupped their hot drinks under their chin to make full use of the warm steam escaping out of their cups. There was no stopping me now. Only a rhino could block my way, and oh, an old man who I had to pull a John Travolta spin move on to avoid. Near the drink table, I quietly interrupted a female tour guide wearing a green park service uniform and circular cowboy hat. “Pardon me, ma’am, but uh, me and my buddy over there on the bikes were wondering if we might bum some warm drinks off you.” She flipped around, gave it a second, and then said, “Well, as long as everyone else has had some, I am sure we could share.” Then she popped the big question. “Has everyone had enough to drink over here?” She turned back and gave me the thumbs up. I thanked her and ducked in line with four old fogies waiting for hot chocolate or coffee. Moments later, I elbowed up to Matias, who was chatting with an enthusiastic group of onlookers. He looked around and exclaimed “Alright, Kev, you did it, man! Way to go,” he chuckled. “I can’t believe they let you in there?”
I stood next to my friend sipping my drink in bliss when a lady came up to me mid-sip, and said, “You’re the one who scared those birds aren’t you?” “Yes, that’s me,” I admitted. I was thinking she was going to give me a tongue lashing so I said, “Sorry about scaring them in front of you.” To my amazement she was really grateful for it and replied, “Oh, it was great! They turned right into my camera. You herded them right into me and that will make for some great footage.” She even thanked me. Matias leaned over and whispered, “This is crazy! We’re like these peoples heroes.” We wolfed down our beverages and with permission to the bar, we went back for seconds.
From the overlook we rolled down a lengthy downhill with long, arching turns. We rounded the lowest bend and saw that we had reached the river where one hill ended and another began. There was a little security shack on the near side of the river and I knew it was occupied, so I began to whip my thoroughbred, shag the reins, and lean forward into my horse's mane as the bike picked up speed. I ripped past the shack performing my best Top Gun flyby impression while pumping my fists into the air as though I had just won a sprint finish in a big stage race. I coasted to the end of the bridge and turned around to watch Matias come down the hill. As I pulled into the shack, the attendant lady mentioned that the gentleman in the vehicle behind us would like to have a word with me. Startled, I turned to see a patrolman gesturing me over to his car with two fingers hanging outside his window. I sauntered over to his car and knew that he was not very thrilled with my failure to recognize a stop sign on my pony express extravaganza down the hill. A STOP sign for crying out loud!! (that one should be pictured on mbpost!)
Back on the road, we were excited to be on the pavement and riding without the constant butt chatter caused by the gravel, but we were saddened to know that we were within an hour of the park headquarters and the end of our adventure. Descending into the low elevation forests caused me to get sappy on my friend and I told him how awesome it was to be with such a great friend, in such a great place, and having such a good time. A real sense of finality came over me when we passed a traffic jam of six cars and two buses deep watching a couple bull moose grazing in the brush. Soon I would be questioning strangers at a gas station to see if they were heading south towards Anchorage and if I might tag along for the ride. My friend would be driving north to his home in Fairbanks. An hour later at the gas station, Matias was set to leave when I asked him to please say a prayer for my safe hitchhiking journey back down south. He begrudgingly conceded and yet, a mere two rides later, I spent a blessed night along the banks of a Glacier Creek in downtown Girdwood, a half hour east of the big city. The next morning I caught a ride to Summit Pass in the Kenai Peninsula and then chose to ride the other umpteen odd miles back to my summer residence, safe and sound.