Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Days 22-24: More southern Alaska

Day 22: Exit Glacier to Copper Center

Southern Alaska is still wet. Nothing like waking up to find that your tent is in the middle of a two-inch-deep puddle.

Probably not the smartest place to camp, granted, but I got back late after the glacier hike and didn't realize that my campsite was in a depression. Ah well. Shove the whole mess into the side cases, have another granola bar, and move on.

Turnagain arm, again.

Hm. Well, at this point, it's taking me forever to finish this ride report. So I'll dispense with most of the narrative and stick with pictures. This is probably the right approach anyhow, as my words cannot do southern Alaska justice.

Day 23: Down to Valdez

Valdez is the southern terminus of the oil pipeline. The road to Valdez ... it is hands down the most beautiful road I have ever traveled in my life. Mile upon mile of this:

And this:

And finally, this:

Day 24: Valdez to Haines

No pictures from this day, as I had a good 700 miles to make in order to reach Haines, AK in time for the ferry, which was scheduled to depart early the next morning.

I rode back north to Anchorage, then east into the Yukon Territories. Revisited the stunning Kluane Lake and its soaring mountains, and I again got to enjoy the impromptu roller coaster of the larger ice heaves.

Then to Haines Junction, YT. Had a tense dinner as I watched the clouds gather and the darkness fall. The final 150 miles to Haines would take me through some remote mountains, and snow was a serious concern.

This road is supposed to be phenomenal during the day. At night, illuminated by a near-full moon, the immensity of the silhouetted mountains rolling past me was in no way diminished. Again, I was just struck to the core by my surroundings.

Eventually, I'd descended enough that the mountains gave way to the boreal rain forest of the Alaska coastline. And fog. Thick, thick fog. Also: rain. Slowing at times to 20 mph, I crept along. Eventually crossing back into the States. Found a small park at a pull-off, and unrolled my sleeping pad and bag onto a picnic table under a rickety roof. 5 hours of shut eye, then early wakeup to head into town for the ferry. I still got wet from the rain blowing in sideways.

>>>NEXT: Heading home

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Days 20 & 21: Anchorage & Seward

Day 20: Anchorage

Southern Alaska is wet. I'd learn, later on, that much of it is technically rain forest. But the night of Day 19, lying in my tent at a pull off that the signs told me was -- on clearer days -- a southern Denali viewpoint, all I knew was that it was raining. No complaints: I'd had spectacular luck with the weather so far, hitting rain only once or twice in the roughly 7000 miles I'd traveled thus far. With a little luck, it would stop by morning.

Another lovely view of mighty Denali

Or not. Woke up to still more rain. In what would soon become standard operating procedure, I didn't bother to fold up my wet tent, instead just stuffing it piecemeal into my side cases, however it would fit. Neatly rolling up the tent and fly and fitting them into the stuff sack requires more dexterity than my fingers could muster in 35°F rain.

Fortunately, I was only a little more than 2 hours north of Anchorage at that point. Even more fortunately, Anchorage is full of awesome people. Many of whom own motorcycles. (Alaska has the highest per capita motorcycle ownership rate in the United States.)

My first destination in Alaska was Alaska Leather, home of the sheepskin buttpad and other motorcycling delights, and something of an Alaskan motorcycling institution. I almost made it, but wound up sidetracked by the Glacier Brewhouse. Ahhh, nothing like a hearty bowl of soup and a pint of good porter to fend off the cold and wet. Anyhow! -- brew & stew break complete, I headed for Alaska Leather. Met the owner, Barb, and she gave gave me some references for local riders and shops. She also let me use the "courtesy computer" in her shop to type up the previous update. Continuing my extremely positive impression of Alaskans.

I headed over to the local REI to meet AKDuc, one of the local riders that Barb referred me to. (AKDuc is his screen name on He very kindly invited me to crash at his place after he got off of work.

With some time to kill, I hung out at a bookstore for a while, then headed over to another local brew pub. Lots of them in Anchorage, apparently. As I pull in, a family waiting for a table greets me. Apparently they ride too, and the son is AlaskaZman -- yet another ADVrider! So I have a beer and dinner with them, and we swap some motorcycle stories. I'm really liking Anchorage!

Eventually I meet back up with AKDuc and go for an evening ride around the hills above Anchorage. And I crash there for the night. The only downside to this Anchorage experience is that AKDuc's dog Comet almost killed me. Not that he was vicious; we're talking about a cute little terrier here. But MAN did he set off my allergies. And all he wanted to do was say hi to the stranger and hop up in my lap. Poor Comet. He only wants to love.

I take a few shots of my asthma inhaler and hit the sack. Ahhh, it was good to sleep in a real bed!

Day 21: Seward and Exit Glacier

On AKDuc's advice, I set out the next day for Seward, AK, a coastal town on the Kenai peninsula, which extends into the Pacific south of Anchorage.

The trip to Seward was spectacular.

A shot of Turnagain Arm, a bay off the Gulf of Alaska. I was told that it had the second most extreme tidal flow in North America, with the incoming and outgoing tides sometimes advancing as six-foot-tall walls of water. I didn't have the luck to see that, unfortunately.

(And in case you're wondering, the most extreme tide is supposedly the Bay of Fundy, abutting Nova Scotia. Not sure if that's true, but that's what I've been told.)

And on to Seward! After the picturesque ride down, I was rewarded with the equally lovely Resurrection Bay, on which Seward lies.

After lunch in Seward (delicious fresh fish!), I headed to the nearby Exit Glacier, which spills (slowly) down from the icefield that dominates the Kenai Peninsula. Approaching the glacier, I was greeted by signs marking its extent in the past: the first, marked for 1860 or so, was well over a mile from the current base; the span between later signs decreased, reflecting the increasing rate of melt. Apparently the glacier has recessed by nearly 1000 ft in the last decade alone. No doubt about it: part of my motivation for visiting Alaska was to see it before even more disappeared.

The Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it flows were the highlight of the trip for me. Words cannot describe, and my pictures can't really capture. Here are some pictures from the hike up to the icefield.

Looking back down into the valley. From the signposts, I figure that the glacier used to fill this entire expanse, down to the base of the distant mountains.

Black rock; white ice; blue sky.

Finally, I reached the top. This is an arduous hike, ascending roughly 3500 ft in the course of 3 miles. Near the summit is a cabin that serves as an emergency shelter.

Like most back country huts, this one was covered with good-natured graffiti by the many hikers who had passed this way. Some observed the time-honored tradition of carving their names and dates of visit into the wood ("Izabelle was here"); others, words of love ("Tim [heart] Julie"). Some, no doubt moved by the beauty around them, wrote words of inspiration ("Carpe diem!") or Biblical verses (John 14:6). No one, however, quite captured the mood of the steep and rocky hike as well as this poor bastard:

Amen, brother. Amen.

The view from the top:

And a 360 degree panorama of the same:

For some scale, you can see another hiker in the top photo. The Harding Icefield is vast, extending far past the horizon in the above images.

The rule in the bottom left of the map indicates 10 miles.

Everything is overwhelmingly beautiful up here. Even the textures and colors of the crumbling volcanic rock are mesmerizing. The rocks...

... and the ice ...

... and the places where they collide ...

Shadows growing longer, it was time to descend back into to the valley, down to the glacier-fed Resurrection River.

Got back down to the base about an hour after sunset and made camp at the nearby tent site. Too tired to go back into town, my dinner was a couple granola bars and an orange. Ah well, I'd had a big lunch.

>>>NEXT: Days 22-25: More southern Alaska