Like most great ideas I have, it happened while drinking beer.
The packraft/bike combo is one that offers so much potential in this part of Alaska- surrounded by rivers, lakes, beaches, and not many roads. One trip that has been on my list for a long time was to the end of the road. Not the current end of the road, but the end of the road that we used to go see Child’s Glacier calve into the mighty Copper River- that and the engineering marvel of the Million Dollar Bridge.
The Copper River Highway is the old railroad bed that used to connect Cordova and the copper mines in Kennecott, some 196 miles up river via the Copper River and North West Railroad. Not without hurdles to construction and maintenance, the CRNW crossed 129 bridges, including the Million Dollar Bridge (which cost $1.4 million and was completed in 1910.) On April 8, 1911, the first ore train hauled $250,000 of copper ore to Cordova. In 1916, the peak year for production, the mines produced copper ore valued at $32.4 million. The mines at Kennecott worked until 1938, and the Kennecott company donated the land back to the state in 1941 for use as a state highway route. The 1964 earthquake took care of that nicely, when the last span on the north end collapsed (it has since been raised and the bridge added to the Nat’l Historic Registry.) The CRNW Railroad is sometimes referred to as the “Can’t Run Never Will.”
In 1999 I got the opportunity to raft down from the Tazlina river to Cordova (27mile,) a 9 day float trip. It was absolutely incredible and I fell in love with the Copper River. We floated alongside the old railroad route, sometimes getting out to explore the old tunnels and old railroad line long ago reclaimed my mother nature. Alders had overgrown through the railroad bed and bridges were long washed out by heavy spring snow melt-making the idea of a bike or even hiking trip down the trail difficult if not impossible.
The Copper River makes this whole remarkable area where I live what it is. The river has changed much over the years- moving sand, rock and trees with it. A few years back, the bridge at 36 mile was washed out, eroding the section of earth between two bridge sections. Gone with it was access to Child’s Glacier. Sure we have other glaciers here, but Child’s Glacier is something. It calves directly into the Copper River when the water is high sending waves of water across the river towards the observation deck. As a town, it affects tourism some and was a great place for folks to go camping and explore out the road. But I digress… Where was I?
That’s right, I was drinking beer. Son of A Berserker. A stout. I started putting my bike together for an overnight trip. I thought at first I’d do it in one day- drive to 36 mile, paddle across, ride the remaining 12 miles up river and float back down to the truck. Seemed easy enough. But my plan started to change.
I says to myself, I says “Self, why don’t you stay the night? When’s the next time you’ll be out here? Why don’t you just stop and smell the cottonwoods?”
Maybe it was the beer, but I thought that was a pretty good idea. Unfortunately, it meant that my loose plan made with Hoots the day before was out the window. Hoots was interested in going, he could borrow a packraft from a friend and I’d set him up with a bike. With the change to an overnight, I didn’t have enough gear to get all our stuff over the river and to set up a camp. With that, I decided I’d ride the route solo instead of driving to the end of the road and making a day trip with a friend. Seemed fitting.
Choosing the bike. With most of my route on a gravel road, I didn’t need 5” tires. I knew the conditions on this side of the bridge because I’ve been around out there. On the far side, most bets were off. It’s been a couple years since the road has gone through and I was unsure if the sand had blown over the road, it was washed out, or something else. In the summer there is an outfit that takes people over on a massive airboat and then a shuttle van brings them to the glacier, so I know it’s been traveled, but I was still unsure. I may have to ride up the sandy river bed for miles looking for a place to cross. That and when it comes down to it- I don’t have a bike that is as well equipped for taking whatever is thrown at it as my Fatback. It may be slow, but it’s steady. And I’ve got some frame mounted bags for it so….
Packing the bike. This was my first overnight with the Fatback so I was a little unsure how to best pack it. The frame bag looks large, but doesn’t really fit as much stuff in the space as I was hoping. Heavy things like food should have gone in there to keep the weight low but I didn’t bring much of that- and my little “gastank” bag held my snacks for the road. I don’t have one of those fancy seatpost bags that would have been so nice, but I do have a seatpost mounted rack that worked pretty well. I strapped my sleeping bag and pad and lifejacket to it. It made for a tall package, but was light stuff and it worked. I also don’t have one of the fancy rolls for the front of my bike- but I do have a compression sack from Granite Gear that has three straps to make the roll skinnier and one strap to compress it length-wise. This gave me enough strapping points that I could lash it to my Jones H-bars without messing with the cable routing too much. It worked quite nicely actually, even strapping securely onto the stern tie-downs of my raft. That and I had it in my stuff already. I’ll be looking into a seatbag, but the handlebar roll will wait until I can afford it.
After everything was strapped up and lashed down, my bike weighed in at just over 63lbs. Not a very nimble beast, but hey- neither am I. Strap a 15lb backpack to my back and my 7lb pistol to my hip, and I was ready.
My beautiful bride (of ten days) was headed to work so I hopped in with her and she dropped me off 12 miles closer to my destination. We kissed goodbye- her wondering what the fuck I was thinking taking off by myself across the Copper in a plastic boat and a heavy ass bike, but being supportive as she always is.
The packing list:
- 0º degree Wiggy’s sleeping bag
- OR Standard Bivy sack
- foam sleeping pad
- MSR dragonfly stove
- fuel bottle (I could have carried the smaller fuel canister)
- MSR cook pot
- Estwing hatchet
- Coldsteel campknife
- Couglan’s folding saw
- EH tool roll
- extra Surly fat tire tube
- Lezyne pump (I haven’t used my mini pump to inflate a fatbike tire and I hope I never have to.)
- point and shoot camera (which the wind blew overand broke)
- GoPro & extra mounts
- collapsible tripod
- Delorme Inreach Explorer
- Swrve Schoeller wool trousers
- poly long underwear (tops and bottoms)
- two pairs poly/wool socks
- Club Ride liner chamois
- Club Ride shirt
- Chrome Warm vest
- OR HAVOC jacket
- OR wind/rain layer
- Filson leather belt
- Keen sneakers
- mesh cap
- Black diamond windblock fleece gloves
- Alpacka raft
- Carbon paddle
- heavy type III PFD borrowed from seine boat
- 3L water bladder
- water bottle
- bear spray
- .44mag S&W revolver with 6 240gr. bullets.
- Niterider Lumina 220 light
- Black Diamond headlamp
- small first aid kit
- 2 Granite gear compression stuff sacks (one for raft, one for sleeping system)
- Stanley flask full of Buffalo Trace bourbon
I want to take this time and stress that you don’t need all the new shit to get outside. It doesn’t need to cost a ton of money. In my head I kept thinking of that overused hashtag “#outsideisfree.” Sure it is- of course I’m typing that on a $600 phone, atop a $2000+ bike or $800 raft with $xxxx amount of shit strapped to it. It’s important to remember that the experience we are searching for isn’t something that most of us want to put a price tag on. I don’t want people to not go bike camping because they don’t have the newest, hottest thing. You don’t need a hashtag to get outside. If you have your essentials: Shelter, food and water, you can have a great time and make some memories. These requirements are of course regionally defined. Summer beach camping in San Diego is far different than fall camping on the Gulf of Alaska- be smart, think- but don’t overthink it. Have fun and enjoy the ride. My packing lists change on every ride, and yours will too, the more you do it the more you’ll figure out. You’ll find out how warm (or cold) you sleep and how much food you need (pro-tip: bring a little more than you think you need if you’re going to be self-supported.)
That’s what I’ve got so far. I’ll do another post of the trip as it was, with the photos I could recover. Stay tuned.