Archive for the ‘Alaska’ Category

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESI’m always startled into nostalgia when I come upon fireweed growing in Missoula. It’s such an Alaskan connection, my favorite wildflower and a vivid reminder of the decades I spent making the Last Frontier my home.



The alleyway that divides Missoula Textiles from Adventure Cycling is decidedly industrial. Walking back from my usual morning coffee I was delighted and surprised to spot this tenacious pioneer, struggling up through cracks in the hardscape. Like Alaskans, the fireweed is blossoming in a harsh environment, bringing beauty and a resolute spirit into the world and making me smile at the persistence of life.


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Highbush cranberry

Highbush cranberry

I had a dog who smelled like this when he was wet. Not completely unpleasant; the iconic fragrance of Alaska autumn.

Iconic, because the odor is wild; tangily sweet-tart, musky, a little doggish. It smells red. I envision the bears feasting, the ptarmigan and their offspring gorging, the kuspuk-and-raingear clad women braving wind and wet to bring home a harvest of these fat, succulent packets of concentrated vitamin C.

It is the overriding aroma of my cycling forays at this time of year. Especially on sunny days the crisp air is pungent with highbush cranberry and wet, decaying leaves, that winey fall essence of change. In the year’s dying I am energized, deeply alive to the wild beauty that is my privilege to call home.

I ride.

I breathe.

I smile.



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Farewell and Godspeed...

At first, I think it is geese.

Crane my neck, peer at the sky, damn near tip the bike over. OK, fine. I stop, dismount, take a proper gander at the wild blue and discover not Canadas, but Sandhills. Admitting the neck craning was appropriate, I laugh out loud.

Silhouettes against the hard blue-copper of mid-September sky; eerie, gargling cries bouncing off the Butte; circling, circling higher and higher until only that call remains, drifting, floating, wisping into nothingness. The cranes are taking wing for latitudes envisioned in their feathered-dinosaur dreams.

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July 4 at Summit Lake on Hatcher Pass

Let’s go to the lake on the 4th, OK honey? What?! It’s still frozen?!

I have to laugh when people who live in the 48 contiguous states–variously known to Alaskans as the Lower 48 or Lesser 48–tell me about their Fourth of July celebrations. I’ve been gone for so long that it sounds like tales from a foreign land. Trips to the lake, shorts and flip flops, crepe paper decked floats, picnics full of ants and honey bees, spectacular fireworks viewed from a blanket on the grass–all but dim memories from childhood. The 4th in Alaska is very different.

Take, for example, the photo above.

Friend Sharry, husband Tom and I drove up to Hatcher Pass today to do some hiking. We woke to cloudy skies today and temps in the mid-50s, a huge difference from a week ago when it was relentlessly sunny and in the high 80s. Oh well, we are now back to normal I guess. Anyway, since it has not shed a drop of rain in the last week of cloud cover, I didn’t think much about our plans.

I dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, taking my rain coat, another shirt and a fleece vest in my day pack, “just in case”. Oh yes, a hat (I hate having my head dripped on), sunscreen, bug spray, sandwich and water.

Following Sharry’s truck, I knew I was in trouble when we passed the 1000 foot elevation level and went from sprinkles to needing the fastest intermittent setting on my windshield wipers. As we climbed into the gray mountains I removed my sunglasses; I glanced at Tom, a reluctant companion today anyway. When we arrived at Summit Lake, elevation 3800 feet, I got out and told Sharry that we were not going to hike. Neither of us had really brought enough clothing to be comfortable at 40 degrees in the rain. No rain pants, no gloves, cotton jeans–what had we been thinking?

She, brave (read prepared) soul, slipped on her Helly Hansens, pulled up her hood and bounded off into the fog. We slithered back into the warmth of the car and made our slow, picture-snapping way down the Willow side of the pass. And what a breathtaking ride it is, even in the dim.

The view from the top of Willow Fishhook Road

The view from the top of Willow Fishhook Road

Crossing Willow Creek

Crossing Willow Creek

That side of the Palmer to Willow road is all gravel. Willow Creek and its small tributaries, which drain the steep-sided valleys, are full of gold mining claims, both hard-rock and placer. At this time of year, regardless of the weather, and because Alaskans really ARE tough, the valley was full of folks camping too. Sopping dogs and kids in shorts and parkas, grownups wearing camo hoodies and rain gear, tents, RVs, fifth wheel trailers, ATVs and any number of non-motorized water craft parked cheek-by-jowl in the few small pullouts along the roadside. There is plenty of private property in the lower reaches of the valley, all marked with No Trespassing signage. The road right of way is often the only place to camp.

Summer camping in Alaska...

Summer camping in Alaska…Note the warm clothing…

Camping. In 40 degree temps. In the rain. I can’t count how many times I have been a part of that scene. The smoke from the campfire hugs the ground, the thin heat from damp wood unable to lift it more than head high. Hot dogs take an eternity to cook on willow sticks held over such fires, and end by tasting like spruce boughs. Don’t even think about S’mores; the marshmallow’s pitchy flavor does not do justice to Hershey bars and graham crackers. Our only consolation is that the dark, cloudy skies will allow us to see those midnight fireworks after all.

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Denali, Mt. McKinley to some

Denali, Mt. McKinley to some

“My two favorite things in life are libraries and bicycles. They both move people forward without wasting anything. The perfect day: Riding a bike to the library.”
 –Peter Golkin

I travel without a smart phone. In fact, with the exception of my own organic and home-grown brain, I travel without a smart device of any kind. Oh, I have considered getting a tablet for use on bike tours and for just fooling around with at home. But then I am in a restaurant, a bar, at a picnic or in a state park and I see folks tethered to their electronics, engaging with the screen and ignoring their family, companion, spectacular scenery…well, I’m reluctant to join those ranks.

And so, instead, I go to the library.

Did you know that there are more libraries in the U.S. (thank goodness) than there are McDonald’s or Starbuck’s restaurants? 96% of Americans are served by a local library. This translates into the fact that everywhere so far that I have bike-toured I’ve been able to access my email, use the restroom, find or trade a free paperback, ask directions, update my Facebook page and this blog, get a restaurant or campground recommendation from a local–well, you get the picture.

Instead of querying Siri I am of necessity approaching a friendly face, excited by the possibility of making a new friend. This, for me, is almost the entire point of travelling by bicycle in the first place. If for some it is all about the journey, for me it is all about the folks I meet along the journey; down the Mississippi, riding Fairbanks to Anchorage, my life in general. Cycle touring is by its very nature a rather solitary pastime, even when you do it with friends. We all ride at a different pace, and there are few places where it’s really safe or considerate to ride two abreast. On long tours I usually go hours at a stretch without much interaction with my fellow travellers.

Thank you, local governments, for the havens that are your libraries.

The library in Nenana, Alaska

The library in Nenana, Alaska

Case in point, the library at Nenana. Sharry and I were riding, both with colds that were rapidly becoming worse, from Fairbanks to Wasilla. Our first day was 53.6 miles of uphill, 90 degree misery. It should come as no surprise that we decided to recover for an extra day at the Nenana RV Park. At breakfast I inquired about a library–truly, I did not expect one. Nenana is a town of only 400 people, and is isolated by nearly deserted highway for 60 miles in each direction. The town itself is peppered with boarded up buildings, and I don’t think there has been anything new built there for decades. The very streets were barren of cars, kids, dogs or any other signs of life–but for a lone raven, playing with a bit of tar paper that had come unstuck from an adjacent roof.

But YES, there was indeed a library, and it opened up at 11:00! The prospect of lonely hours to idle away while we coughed, wheezed  and sneezed in the tent receded into the distance, and our gloom lifted. There was indeed a book exchange, there were indeed friendly faces, and in looking at my email, I found happy news about a job I’d applied for.

It was a long, hard, hot and hilly  ride to get there, but bicycling to the library is one of my favorite activities, too.

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This morning's ride is cancelled...

This morning’s ride is cancelled…

“Bikes are a right livelihood.”

–Scot Nicol, founder of Ibis Cycles

For several years I have dreamed of making my living, somehow, in an activity that relates to cycling. Aside from applying for every position I am even remotely qualified for with Adventure Cycling, I have not really done much to make this dream a reality. For Adventure Cycling, I would be willing to uproot myself from decades in Alaska, haul the detritus of all that time to Missoula, and once again begin to build community. And believe me, I know to the bone just how wrenching that uprooting and rebuilding process is.

Robin Bylenga, my hero!

Robin Bylenga, my hero!

If I wanted once again to be my own boss, own a business, work my sit-bones off, there is always a bike-related opportunity. There is a whole crop of new, woman-owned bike shops springing up in the Lower 48, and Pedal Chic’s Robin Bylenga really epitomizes why they are successful. Women are woefully under represented in the cycling community. I won’t patronize a shop where the mostly male employees look at my short little cylindrical self and automatically steer me to a trike or cruiser. I know more than one woman who is so intimidated by the steel-calved, Lycra-clad image of cycling that she won’t even consider a bicycle as an addition to her gym membership. Bylenga is changing that, one lavender two-wheeler and stylish helmet at a time.

I believe cycling is a natural for women, where the camaraderie, the deep support and encouragement traditional in the biking community is just waiting for our embrace. When we make it our own, we really can have it all–on the bike path with orange cruiserthe 5  year old on training wheels and the baby in the trailer; in the triathlon with the new orange Schwinn Mother’s Day gift; screaming along the Woman Tours Southern Tier ride with a mag tailwind and a huge grin.

Enduring this tortuously delayed spring in Alaska I dream of acquiring a CyclePub and going into partnership with Arkose Brewery  here in Palmer. Or modifying my old knobby-tired rambler as an Ice Cream Bike, which might actually be self-defeating, since I would probably eat up all the profits. As I sit writing this, on May 18, I stare out at the freshly fallen three inches of snow, with “Jingle Bells” grinding an inescapable loop through my brain. Missoula is looking better and better every flake that falls.

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“It is the unknown around the corner that turns my wheels.”
Heinz Stucke, on the road touring since 1962

When I read this quote by the most amazing cycle-traveller in the world, I was immediately transported back to 1965, when, lying in my bed at night I would listen to the radio til I fell asleep. Petula Clark’s Round Every Corner infused me with a sense of adventure, restlessness, and hope. Being only 14 however, I could not figure out just what to do with that inspiration.

These many years later I realize that I have actually lived much of my life inspired by the desire to see what’s around those corners. I interrupted college  to fly off to Lake Tahoe with a highschool friend; I’d never been more than 150 miles from my hometown before then. I bought my first car and drove across the U.S.–twice! I moved to Alaska–my god, ALASKA!–which my parents are still trying to fathom.

My husband didn’t have to try very hard to get me to subscribe to his philosophy of “Let’s Leave Tonight”, a wholehearted embracing of the spontaneous. We’ve never been big into planning, which has its own pitfalls. But we’ve managed to have some mighty good times  by doing the unexpected, the unplanned. Our favorite Mexican vacation is to fly into our destination without a hotel reservation, then explore the Zona Touristico for a little family owned, Spanish-only posada to settle into. Our best road trips, by bike or car, involve the unexpected connections we’ve made by exploring around those corners, being open to the cosmic Possible.

Heinz and Petula have it dead right. “What’s the use in cryin? Happiness is lyin’ ’round every corner!” Let’s leave tonight.

Let's Go!

Let’s Go!

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