The actual pedalling has finally begun. I am now officially living a vagabond life with full exposure to weather, daily physical effort, and constant thoughts about my body’s needs to keep myself going: hydration, nutrition, and recovery.
So far, I have been enjoying my ride a lot even though the first week was quite painful. After the first 50 km, my butt already started a heavy protest. Soon to be followed by an aching friction in my right knee and a noticeable discomfort around my right ankle. I knew from previous biking trips that those symptoms always pop up when your body is not yet used to the daily cycling routine.
Some adjustments on the clip pedal’s spring tension allowed my right leg some extra freedom to move, which luckily made the knee and ankle issue disappear. There isn’t much you can do about the daily rear pain though. Even the best padded liners or bibs, or the most sophisticated saddle cannot completely prevent you from going through that phase of gradually developing the steadiness or perseverance to endure the pain. In German, we have a term called “Sitzfleisch” [trans: meat to sit on] which indeed takes some time to develop 🙂
I started in Anchorage where I spent about a week to get my remaining gear together while overcoming my jet-lag. The ten-hour time difference can take up to a few days to dissipate, I tell you. What makes it more difficult, is the fact that at this degree of latitude it never gets dark in June since the sun stays barely below the horizon for 2-3 hours only.
On my first day, I headed north on Highway #1, favored with sunny weather, passing a massive US Army base and later the town of Wasilla, which Sarah Palin calls her home. (Many of you still remember her, I am sure 🙂 ) Eventually, I arrived at my planned destination just north of Willow.
People keep on asking me how I plan ahead with accommodation and places to sleep. Well, I only have a rough plan and sometimes change the final destination depending on weather and/or my current physical/mental condition. So far, I slept in campgrounds with shower facilities, set up my tent just off the road in the woods, or was hosted by very lovely people I met on warmshowers.org. The Warm Showers Community is a free worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists. It works pretty much like couch surfing but caters specifically to cyclists. Locals, who are often cyclists themselves, offer a place to stay and to freshen up after a long ride.
My first night near Willow was one of those Warm Showers experiences. Elaine, the host, was a lovely woman who let me stay in her little dry cabin next to her house. When I arrived she had already cooked a nice dinner which was a very pleasant welcome. We had a great chat before her 13 Alaskan huskies howled me to sleep.
When I rode back to the main road on the following day, I was stunned by the majestic view of Mt Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America (6,190 m). With a topographic prominence of 6,144 m and a topographic isolation of 7,450 km, Denali is the third most prominent and third most isolated peak after Mount Everest and Aconcagua. It really looks massive.
I continued my ride north to Talkeetna where I had arranged a tent spot, again through Warm Showers. This time, I was surprised by an ad hoc invitation of the host (Iris from the Netherlands) to join her on a rafting/floating trip on the Susitna River. She is a rafting guide and had to show around some of the many package tourists cruising Alaska. I was more than happy chilling on the raft after my ride. Iris and I shared our cycling stories over dinner and breakfast sitting in her cozy little cabin in the woods. That was awesome. Thanks again so much for that.
In two more stages, I eventually made it to Denali National Park and Preserve, one of the key highlights of Alaska. Denali’s landscape is a mix of forest at the lowest elevations, including deciduous Taiga. The preserve is also home to tundra at middle elevations, and glaciers, rock, and snow at the highest elevations.
I gave myself a day of rest and had a chance to meet and talk to various types of travelers: Touring cyclists like me, backpackers who just returned from the wilderness, long-distance motorcyclists who are on a similar journey as I am, and dozens of vacationers/retirees in motorhomes of all sizes and kinds. Some drive a million dollar RV’s spending their summers in Alaska and Canada, and then heading down to Arizona and Texas in the winter time. Others were just out on a short weekend camping trip.
I wanted to explore Denali National Park and decided to get inside the park. The only means of transportation are the well-organised buses operated by the National Park service. I booked a 6am ticket, then got dropped off at the end of the road, and rode my bike back to the campground where I had left my luggage. Despite the 110 km of rolling hills with about 1,400m of vertical climbs on gravel, it was one of the most rewarding bike rides I have ever done. You get to see herds of caribou, mostly likely some grizzly bears, all sorts of birds and many squirrels. Park visitors are eager to see grizzlies from the park buses, and many get to see those brown bears up close. I wasn’t lucky on the inward journey and certainly not interested when I was on my bike afterwards. For obvious reasons. I had taken along the obligatory can of bear spray but who wants to go to the last line of defence for a vis-a-vis experience with a grizzly. At the end of the day, I was a very happy camper embarking on a 10 hour snooze in my sleeping bag.
After Denali I went further north to Fairbanks, the largest city in the Interior region of Alaska, where I took another two days of resting, eating, reading, and planning the next few days.
For those of you who are interested in what I am carrying around on my journey, please have a look at my GEAR list which I recently updated. Usually, touring cyclists start with a lot of gear and slash it gradually once they realize that there are redundant clothes or that they haven’t used certain items at all. That process has already started, so I will most likely have to revisit the list every now and then.