It’s been a couple days since my return and the snow line is heading down the mountains. I walked up to the top of the ski hill and there were patches of snow and ice scattering the trail towards the top. Before I get this published it may reach town. Our deck stairs have been covered with frost the last few days and the lakes are getting a thin layer of ice- hopefully sign that ice skating will be around the corner.
Cordova, Alaska. The town that I call home. A little fishing village where Prince William Sound meets the Gulf of Alaska. Population 1,500 in the winter- it nearly doubles in the summer. This time of year is quiet. Then the occasional tragedy of a drug overdose death makes a headline in our weekly paper. I wish I was kidding, I am unfortunately, not.
But… Life does go on. And though sometimes times are hard in our little town, things are often good. Here we go with something positive- a bike ride, even.
I started out a little slow. The sun was up and the sky was blue. Generally what that means around here is that there will be a north wind blowing out of the Copper River. The forecast called for NNE 25 with higher gusts on the coast, which would put the wind on my nose. In one of the trade offs that is living here, blue skies and some wind is preferred to rain. So I left the ol’ “Mudhole Smith” airport and headed out the road. In the 52 miles of the Copper River Highway, there are mile markers along the way- I can’t always remember all of them, and some of the places we refer to are just ballpark. For example, the 27 mile bridge is Flag Point, Alaganik Slough landing is at 17 mile. Less than a mile from the airport (mile 13), the road turns to gravel. My bike wasn’t honed down to a svelte 40lbs (it weighs just over 30lbs naked) for this trip- instead, it was bursting out of it’s seams at over 60lbs of metal and synthetic fabrics. A seat post mounted rack carried my 0º Wiggy’s sleeping bag, Outdoor Research bivy sack, foam sleeping pad and my PFD, strapped to the top. My (Revelate) frame bag held my (MSR dragonfly) stove (the fuel bottle traveled on the underside of my down tube in a bottle cage,) cook pot, dinner for the night, a folding saw, and a spare inner tube. It doesn’t sound like much in there, and really it wasn’t. There isn’t a whole lot of room in a fat bike’s triangle. Space that is wasted otherwise, but if what you’re packing in there isn’t moldable, don’t expect to cram too much in. My (Revelate) gas tank bag held some snacks for the ride and a zippo. I attached my Leatherman to one of the frame bag straps. Attached to my seat post was an Estwing hatchet (which did come in handy for fire starting) with the handle tucked into a frame bag strap. next to my gas tank was a bulky Cold Steel camp knife (that I could have left behind.) My fork has two cages, one carried bear spray in a cut off water bottle, the other is my King Cage flask holder with my often present Stanley flask- containing Buffalo Trace bourbon received as a wedding gift. I also carried a Randi Jo Fab Bartender bag that held a water bottle that I’d fill with some sort of electrolyte replacing goodness. My tools were kept handily inside my EH-Works Tool Roll. It keeps everything organized am I’m really liking it.
The roads are gravel, with sections that are pretty horrible with potholes. Though well packed, there are areas with loose gravel from washouts. Yes, it’s a state highway- no, they don’t do a whole heck of a lot of maintenance on a road that goes nowhere. My bike choice, a fat bike with 4.8″ tires on 80mm rims was overkill. I’d feel just fine with 40c tires- and it would make for a much quicker trip. My Port Townsend would have been just dandy, but the fenders get in the way when I’m ferrying on the raft. I was also concerned about how far up the sandy and rocky river bed I may have to ride, and the state of the road across the river… Really, I just wanted to ride my Fatback, so that’s what I did.
As I reached 21 mile, I could feel the wind. Until then I was protected by the trees- just the wind in my face at 12mph, the speed of travel. Come around the bend at the curved bridge, looking east, towards the Copper River. That wind picked up 10mph right there. I realized that it was going to be a long ride. The closer I got to the road washout at 36mile, the more the wind increased. Crossing the bridges at 27 mile, sand from the river was getting driven into my face at 25mph. Whitecaps on the water, I was concerned about crossing the river 9 miles up the road. Nevertheless, I pushed on- resigning to the idea that if the crossing was too dangerous, I’d just have to bag it and try again at a later date.
When I got to 36mile I thought I’d have to turn around. The wind was blowing hard. I could see the whitecaps and it made it look like the river was going pretty damn fast. I walked to the end of the bridge to get a better vantage point- to see where I may put in to cross the river. It was shitty. I had to lay my bike on the ground. To lean it against the railing, it would blow right over. The reason I chose this day way a recent trip out to see the river. The river was extremley low, exposing a couple of options when it came to crossing. In the peak of summer, the river spans quite a distance. It’s a river that isn’t affected much by the rain we get in Cordova. It’s the tributaries and water levels up river that make it swell in the summer.
I’m not a river guy. Hell… I’m barely a bike guy. I get my ass handed to me in just about every competitive event that I enter. But I’m stubborn. When there is a job to be done- I’ll make it happen. I will trudge through and sometimes, that’s what it takes. I’ve got a healthy respect for big river crossings, especially when I’m running solo. But here I was. Looking at it. The wind blowing and I had to make up my mind.
I don’t want to make a big deal about the decision to cross- but I kind of have to, and maybe should. It’s not a little river. It’s not a cross into easier country. When you cross the Copper River, you’re out of touch. There’s no cell service and you’re out of reach of most of what we view as “Emergency Services.” You have to have a plane to get there, and they likely won’t be able to land real close if you get in a shitty spot- even on the Copper River highway. Crossing alone- in the fall, is something most people would advise one against. But… I’m different. Or lucky. I have good equipment, I know my limitations and I don’t really have anything to prove. I’m just out for a ride, after all.
At Mile 36 I started riding up the beach. All the wind was coming from the north or northeast. I found a small offshoot of the river that headed west. There, the ground dipped a little and the wind was a little lighter at the river level. Inflating the raft and packing the bike onboard demanded my utmost attention- everything threatening to head downwind with the next 30mph gust. Inflation of raft complete, bike strapped securely to raft and gear stowed as best as I could figure- I headed off. No- I didn’t have on a spray skirt, a dry suit, or even rain gear, even the paddle spray was getting me wet. The current was strong- the wind, stronger. My attempt at a ferry was wet- the spray from the wind off my paddle bringing in a lot of water. I was tired- typically a strong paddler, my paltry 25 miles had tuckered me out a little… but I made it. And though a little wet- the raft did quite well. I’m constantly amazed at the little boat that I’m spending more and more time in. It feels really solid, even with all that weight strapped to it. I tucked neatly inside a little eddy on the east side of the Copper river and got out of my little boat. I was now committed. The biggest hurdle of my trip was the Copper. Nobody to the east of me for help if I needed it, but there was only 12 miles of road left and I knew there was at the very least, covered areas at Child’s Glacier.
Across the river, the alders have been encroaching onto the road. The years of travel by rail and automobile has made a well packed roadbed that they won’t be poking through in the immediate future, but it will happen. As it is now, they are growing in from the sides, leaning as far in as they dare, competing against one another to get as much sunlight as they can. How many years before they have reclaimed what was theirs long ago? Riding along a ghost road few will travel again is a weird feeling. It seems quieter, obviously. I rode down the middle of the gravel highway- looking behind me on occasion, out of habit. I’d be more likely to see a bear or moose crossing the road than anything, but it just seemed odd. A road that I had been down many times in a car- forever different because the river changed it’s course.
I was getting tired, the sun was moving farther away, soon it would be down behind the mountains and the night would start. In the distance I saw a white spot in the road. It was almost like it was sand, or the sun shining on something. I thought I was seeing things. Then at mile 42, winter started. That white in the distance was a line in the road. Beyond it, 2 inches of snow had fallen. It had fallen the night before, wet and heavy. Then as the weather cooled down it froze into an icey crust. Not deep, or slippery, but the tires wouldn’t float on top of it- instead, punching through, adding quite a bit of rolling resistance. Coupled with a stiff, wintery head wind was a slap in the face on these last 12 miles. My only headgear was my mesh trucker cap and the hood of my OR jacket. My Windstopper fleece gloves were a lifesaver- though they were wet from my crossing and my hands and face were getting really cold. You know when your face starts to go numb? When you try and talk and it feels like your lips are made of rubber? Yeah, that was happening. I was rethinking how awesome this trip was going to be. At times, when my speed was reduced to a crawl, I would get off and walk. It seemed just as fast. The wind seemed to be screaming at me “You’re going the wrong way! Turn back now! You’ll never make it!” But make it I did. As the Million Dollar Bridge came into view, the alpenglow was kissing the mountains on the east side of the river. It was beautiful. The Million Dollar Bridge is really a dramatic scene as you come out from the cottonwoods and alders and no sign of human life- it stands defiantly in four spans, stretching 1550ft across the Copper River. It’s a design that was common in the early 1900’s, but it’s location makes for some beautiful imagery.
In my walk of shame I started to think of something that made me laugh. Remember Footprints?
One night I dreamed I was walking along the road with my Bike.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed tire tracks in the snow.
Sometimes there was a set of footprints next to the tire tracks,
other times there were just the tire tracks.
This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from
anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only the tire tracks.
So I said to my Bike,
“You promised me Bike,
that if I followed you,
you would be with me always.
But I have noticed that during
the most trying periods of my life
there have only been tire tracks in the snow.
Why, when I needed you most,
you have not been there for me?”
The Bike replied,
“The times when you have
seen only tire tracks,
is when I carried you.”
I rode to the glacier overlook and took some photos, then I had a pull of something that I normally would have more than one pull from- that is, a flask of Buffalo Trace bourbon. I knew I was tired because I didn’t want to sit around a nice little fire and drink whiskey. Instead, my focus was heating up my (2) packages of Tasty Bites Indian Food, and going to bed. It was cold. And windy. Though tucked up in the lee of a covered area inhabited in the summer by Alaska Department of Fish & Game- I had all my clothes on. In my sleeping bag and bivy sack, on top of a foam pad, I was still woken up a few times that night. It was a clear night and the northern lights were out. It was beautiful. And cold. I felt like Jack Torrance was there with me.
My phone (that I was using as a camera as I broke my camera) shut off because it got too cold. I woke up just before sunrise, an early bed time will do that. I made coffee, and went for a little ride around before heading back out. I got a satellite txt that the wind was going to increase even more- so my window was closing rapidly. My big plan at the start was to ride up to the bridge, then raft back down the river to the other side, making a nice little combo float/ride. Now at the glacier, I saw that Miles Lake, on the upriver side of the bridge, was frozen about a mile above. The water level being lower, there were rapids right at the put in. Not bad ones, the most serious rapids on the Copper River are Abercrombie Rapids, upriver a few miles. Remembering the spray filled crossing of the day before, and not knowing what awaited down river, I decided that I’d stay with what I knew- that is, my bike. In hindsight- I made the right choice.
After my ride around the old campground, and some photo opportunities on the bridge- I decided to get the hell going. I packed my gear, melted some snow to hydrate my GU Brew drink and hit the trail. Now with the wind to my back (on my right butt cheek, actually) My speed increased dramatically. That, and I was traveling over my tracks from the day before. What was 2″ of crust was now packed, and travel was far more enjoyable. My speed was averaging double what it was the other direction. I was feeling good. I got back to the river in about an hour, which is much faster than it would have been on water and hey! I was dry! Warm, even!
The wind had increased from the day before, earlier than was forecast. I quickly surveyed my put in option, which was different than the day before. I would put in south of the wash out and paddle like hell to the west, before the wind and current brought me into the Gulf of Alaska. I got situated, and went for it. No sweat. Man, I love that raft. When I reached the other side, I jumped out and tried to keep my feet dry. As soon as I exited the raft with the bike downwind- a gust flipped my raft over onto the bike- lest I think it had started to lighten up. I pulled everything together, had to make sure everything was tied to something else or was heavy enough that it wouldn’t blow away. I’m sure I looked comical. I felt like I was trying to herd cats, but I finally got it all strapped together, and I didn’t even lose anything. Success.
It was a pretty brisk ride towards town, with the ever increasing wind pushing me along. I got my fastest speed on the ride as I crossed the bridges at 27 mile. I didn’t pedal at all- instead I had my upwind leg outstretched like an outrigger, my face looking downwind to protect my eyes from the wind that was now blowing sand at over 30mph and leaned into the wind- zipping along for the mile of full exposure at 20mph. Gusts at times felt like they wanted to wash my wheels out from under me. It was quite exciting to travel by wind alone, on flat ground at that speed.
After I got across 27 mile and tucked out of the shotgun barrel that is the river basin, the wind died dramatically. Just as it had the day before. Then it was just me and my legs for the remaining 25+ miles back to Cordova. I stopped at the airport to drop off my backpack and pistol in the truck- 12 miles later, I wheeled up to the Anchor Bar. A bacon and blue cheese burger coupled with a few Hopothermias and I was a new man.
I’m pretty sure that my timing was as good as it could have been- the weather is rarely ideal here, but when it approaches it I’ve learned that you gotta be ready. And with that, be ready for it to turn.
Of all the crap I brought with me, there isn’t much I would have cut out. I didn’t need a camp knife, as I had a Leatherman, a hatchet and a pocket knife. I didn’t eat one of the cans of salmon I brought- but I’d much rather bring home a little food that to be hungry in an inhospitable environment. I wish I would have brought another layer of clothing. I had all mine on and though I was nowhere near hypothermic, I wasn’t sleeping comfortably, either. I wish I would have brought a windproof fleece hat, also a balaclava. That wind…. A gadget that did come in quite handy, and has in my job fishing in places with limited cell coverage, is my DeLorme inReach Explorer. It enabled me to be in contact with the people that might be worried- via txt message and email. With my sent messages, it gives my latitude and longitude. It’s like a SPOT device, but you can send customizable texts as well as receive. Helpful for weather reports, etc. After the trip is done I can upload my trip, and the satellite images are awesome (though around here the topo maps suck.) The ability to stay in touch not only gives piece of mind to loved ones, it’s a safety precaution as well. I don’t know if everybody needs one of these things, but if you go backcountry quite a bit- they are helpful. On top of the MSRP of $379.95, there is a monthly charge that allots you 10 custom messages, and no-limit of preset text messages.
So there it is. In so many words. So. Many. This trip was a precursor to a couple that I want to do next year- possibly in the spring. The first would be to Softuk cabin- a Forest Service cabin about 75 to the east on the Gulf of Alaska. The second would integrate that trip and push farther down the coast- reaching Kayak Island and then all the way to the southern end, Cape St. Elias. One of the coolest places I’ve ever been. But for that I think I’ll be looking to get a crew together. Who’s in?