Flat Alaska

December 8, 2014

In 2006, I visited Alaska for the second time with fellow biker chic, Theresa. The trip plan included several epic, two-wheeled adventures. Before embarking on a 23-mile Johnson Pass bike ride, with six other exceedingly fit women, it seemed wise to gauge what to expect from the locals. Theresa and I inquired about the level of difficulty to one of the riders, “How steep are the trails? And are the hill climbs rocky or hard pack?” She replied quickly and casually, “Oh, they’re all flat to me.” with a wave of her hand. I narrowed my eyes and resisted the urge to knock her off her bike seat. And, to increase my level of irritation, I found out she ate a pan of brownies before the ride and still kicked my ass!

Alaska, flat? Really. Certainly not if you are from Michigan, stuck at sea level in between the great lakes. For hardcore athletes and bikers, who call Alaska home, perhaps it does start to flatten over time. My time in Alaska seemed quite steep, vast, challenging and the opposite of flat. Luckily, we had a more helpful guide in the form of Sue, ex-Michigan native now living near Anchorage. Sue had spearheaded the plans for the Johnson Pass ride and assembled a group of ladies up for the challenge. Johnson Pass is located off Seward Highway at mile 64 south of Anchorage. An invitation to visit Sue and her family meant heavy doses of fishing, hiking and biking. An above average fitness level would be beneficial. Theresa and I flew in to Anchorage, fully expecting a list of “warm-ups” from Sue to ready our legs. Guessing correctly, our first few days were filled with hikes up Flattop Mountain and to Bird Ridge. And, two scouting rides included Powerline Trail and Kincaid Park. Surviving both, we were somewhat assured we could hang for the 23-mile journey on Saturday.

The day before, Sue and her friend Sharon suggested we ride a nearby area, Devil’s Pass. The name hinted at the hard-core biking we would experience. Summoning pride and will, Theresa and I nodded at one another and followed Sue and Sharon’s backsides up a hill to look for the devil and his pass. The first quarter mile went swiftly downhill but quickly transformed to a long, gradual climb. Sue had warned us about the hill, promising orgasmic views for our effort. Sue and Sharon steadily faded from my sight as the climb continued around a series of tight switchbacks. I panted heavily, geared down and pedaled on a slow onslaught of the devilish trail. Theresa, right behind, worked her lower gears as well. This slow grind up continued well into 30 minutes, my thighs screaming for a break.

About to crack and dismount, the trail leveled slightly and opened to a valley below, exposing a gorge. Around the next bend, Sue and Sharon patiently waited, staring at an expanse of snow covering the trail. I desperately tried to contain my joy for this obstacle that had been delivered from heaven, not the devil. Off bikes, Theresa and I pretended to be upset right along with them. Inspecting the snow cover, it was a 10-foot section of snowmelt, resting above an icy stream, running below the surface to unknown depths. The crack and rush of water gurgled loudly as we discussed our options. Clearly disappointed, Sue motioned for us to follow her back down the way we had come up. The downhill was delightful, my ears tuned to Sue’s bear whoop as evergreens wooshed by, brushing our shins. In short order, the downhill conquered, I sent up a prayer thanking God for the divine intervention. After skidding to a stop at the trailhead parking lot, we came upon Sharon and Sue discussing another ride since the Devil’s Pass had robbed them of complete satisfaction. Theresa and I, looking to save legs for the next day, did not approve of this discussion. I suppressed a laugh when they mentioned finding another “quick” section. Looking over toward the Michigan rookies, they promised to keep it short, on the ending section of Johnson Pass. More time in the saddle is exactly what we needed to be ready for 23 the next day! We notched another six miles over flat, rooted terrain with views of Upper Trail Lake, dotted with the blaze orange of bear warning signs.

Saturday dawned bright and cheerful, giving me rays of hope to keep up with the Alaskan contingent. Of the eight women that assembled that morning, Theresa and I were the lone riders on rental hard tails. Our bottoms would take the full assault the trail had to give…no cloud-like suspension from bumps, roots and rocks. I concentrated on the crisp, blue sky, blocking out thoughts of bear sightings and steep hills. Almost a balmy 60 by nine, with introductions made, we were wheels-up by 10 on a non-menacing section of single track. On the easy section, I thought it was a good time to reach back and adjust my pack and pull my helmet tighter. One hand off the handlebars, paired with a single rolling bump, sent me lazily sideways over my bars, in a heap in the tall grass. Five minutes in to the ride – I bit it, much to Theresa’s surprise. It was not injurious, at least.

I wish I could tell you I soaked in Alaskan terrain, gazed at a newly greened landscape, listened to gurgling streams celebrating melting snow, or watched eagles soar above us. The trail afforded me little time for gawking. I needed laser–like concentration to:

  1. Stay on the trail (even on the flats)
  2. Stay on my bike
  3. Maintain momentum on steep climbs/ descents
  4. Pedal or wade through river crossings, carrying my bike

Theresa and I kept up with the group. There were multiple stops for de-layering, or disc brake maintenance in the first several miles. We pedaled through mud, snow sections, and over downed trees, where we carried bikes to clear obstacles. A fast moving creek was our guide, crossing the trail back and forth. The creek grew to a river and I swamped my lone dry foot.

The trail got wetter, steeper and more technical, living up to its advanced rating in the trail guide. The transitions were the key to staying on the bike. The abrupt hills sent our gears screeching for lower gears, legs applying what tork we had to ascend. It was a bike version of mini-rollercoasters, with a mud obstacle at each valley, accented by a water crossing and loose shale to deter successful summits. We walked our bikes up many sections, affirming, there is a hiker in every biker. We shouldered bikes for a 200-foot rock shelf that led us to a meadow lunch spot. We happily dismounted and admired the crystal blue of sky and Upper Trail Lake, while devouring bagel sandwiches, only partially smashed from our backpacks. We made it halfway – 12 more miles to go. Muddied but in good spirits, I relished the taste of turkey and cheese on an everything bagel and let the sun warm my tiring shoulders and legs.

Sue pushed us forward after a brief half-hour reprieve. We pedaled on a flat (but short), narrow trail, being overtaken by new spring growth. The obscured trail gave way to an encounter with a wide, swift moving stream. Surely, more than just my shoes were getting wet on this crossing. Resigned to biking with wet shoes the remainder of the ride, Theresa and I hefted bikes again, lunging forward on half-submerged rocks, picking our way across without incident. We notched another two miles with river water running down our pedals and gears. Brake maintenance turned to pedal issues, forcing us to stop. After unsuccessfully looking for the correct tool to tighten Theresa’s pedal, we discovered it was crooked on its bolt, adding to the already high-level of difficulty. Fatigue was ramping-up. Comparing notes, Theresa and I both complained of aching hands and shoulders, tightening with every mile. There are no trails like Johnson Pass in Michigan.

Our pace slowed as we tired. Down and up rooted trails we went, through a pine section that morphed back to green overgrowth. My wish for a gradual downhill on the last five miles did not come to fruition. Sue and Sharon were still within sight, which kept us pedaling at a decent pace. Throwing caution to the Alaskan wind, we followed them, corkscrewing down sharp turns then up a steep trail, almost completely shrouded by weeds. Theresa and I needed a break so we stopped to munch on a protein bar. Staring at each other with exasperated looks, we asked, “How much farther do you think it is?” Theresa assured me, “ We have to be getting close, about three more miles.” Lingering a few more minutes, we gave up catching the two bike rockets in front. We climbed back on and pedaled laboriously the last miles with aching behinds, arms and shoulders.

We passed a group of bikers heading the opposite direction, stopping for a moment to confer on bear sightings. One of the guys warned to keep an eye out for a grizzly spotted near the trail, where we were headed. As he talked, I saw the flash of a revolver strapped in his shoulder holster. Theresa saw it too and we both knew there would be no out-biking a grizzly at this stage of the ride. The last two miles were a blur. Perhaps, in my mental and physical state, I might have been amused to be eaten by a bear, ridding me of the painful flashes emanating from my legs and back. The trail added rocks to the roots to increase the pain quotient. We recognized the final mile from the previous scouting mission, rejoicing to hear a car drive by on the road ahead. We were beyond fatigued, balance failing, we teetered right then left, narrowly missing trees, and other dense obstacles that would win a one-on-one encounter by TKO.

The icing on the pan of the brownies was the last half-mile up a paved hill. There was not enough room for all of us to pile in Sue’s suburban for a ride to the nearby cabin. Theresa and I summoned reserves, watching the car drive away with our bike companions. We remounted and rode up the hill. It was an agonizing half-mile. The hill tortured our burning quads. Downshift, downshift, push, pedal, exhale, OMG. Finally, I peered up, in time to turn on a flat dirt road leading to the cabin.

Johnson Pass Trail

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