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Day 31 – Denali National Park – Day 1

August 10, 2017

I spent three days in Denali, and got into just the right amount of trouble.

In terms of facilities, Denali comes somewhere between the thoroughly developed national parks like Yosemite and the more austere parks like Gates of the Arctic. A major highway runs adjacent to the park, and near the park entrance you’ll find all the facilities you’d expect: campgrounds, visitor centers, book stores, general stores, etc.

Things drop off pretty quickly after that. Where Yosemite has over 800 miles of hiking trails, Denali has less than 40, mostly short trails clustered near the park entrance. When it comes to hiking, the idea in Denali isn’t to follow provided trails, it’s to strike out on your own, whether for a few hours or a few weeks.

Other than backcountry hiking, the only way into Denali other than single engine aircraft is Park Road, which runs 92 miles from the park entrance to Kantishna, a former mining town and current home to a gravel airstrip and several private lodges. The first 15 miles is paved and open to all traffic. The remaining 77 miles are gravel and open only to transit buses, tour buses, and cyclists. The transit buses are hop on, hop off, so you can take a bus into the park, get off 60 miles in, scale a mountain or two, get back to the road, and flag down a returning bus to get back to your car. The transit buses have bike racks as well, so you can ride Park Road however far you legs will take you and then take a bus back. Just make sure you don’t miss the last bus back to the park entrance. If you do, you’re going to be in a for a long night in the wilderness. (That there was foreshadowing)

There are also several flightseeing companies operating in the area. One of them, Fly Denali, lands on a glacier mid-flight. For $500 and change per seat, they fly you and six other people around in a single prop plane for about two hours, approaching Denali itself and landing on a nearby glacier for you to cavort around on. This is far more than I normally spend on a touristy sort of thing, but then, I’m not normally in Alaska. So the first thing I did in Denali was take a deep breath and put $500+ on my credit card for a flight seeing tour at 8am the next morning.

The second thing I did in Denali was put far less than $500 on my credit card for bus ticket.

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From the Wilderness Access Center parking lot.

I’d decided that my overall plan for Denali was as follows:

  • Day 1: Cycling
  • Day 2: Flying
  • Day 3: Hiking

I didn’t care to ride the paved section of the road (Sharing a narrow twisting road with bucket loads of tourists and RVs is rarely fun.), so the plan for the day was to take a bus to Savage River at Mile 15, ride the 77 miles to Kantishna, and then take what would be the last bus back to the park entrance, departing at 8:00pm. It turns out there was a kind of fatal flaw in that plan, but more on that later.

By about 12:30, the clouds that had been overhead the last 36 hours had broken, I was on my bike, and underway.

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Savage River

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Near Polychrome Overlook

By the time I got to Polychrome Overlook at mile 46, I realized I had no hope of making it to Kantishna by 8:00. Eighty miles in eight hours would usually be no problem, but with all the climbing on the road, the fact that I was riding a lot of gravel, and the extra weight for day gear and emergency gear, I wasn’t making good time. Which was fine, I wasn’t in a hurry. I just had to adjust my goal posts back from Kantishna, at mile 92, to Eielson Visitor Center, at mile 66. I figured I could get to Eielson by 6:30 / 7:00 and then take a bus back from there, or, worst case, wait for the bus out of Kantishna, which I figured would come by Eielson by 9:00.

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Guardrails are for sissies.

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Toklat River

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Despite the slow progress, this was a fantastic ride. The only let down was that Denali, the mountain, had been obscured by clouds the entire day. This was the biggest mountain in North America, and I still hadn’t seen it.

Here it is completely covered by clouds on the right:

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I got into Eielson about 7:45, exhausted and happy. The 51 miles from Savage River to Eielson were just about the most scenic 51 miles I’d ever ridden, and also the most grueling. I was very excited to chill there for a while and catch that last bus back to my car.

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Near Eielson Visitor Center

There happened to be a bus at Eielson already. The way it was parked, I figured it was heading into park rather than out, but I thought I’d check before it left. So I asked the driver, “You heading East or West?”

He looked at my kind of funny and said, “West.” I needed East.

“Ok,” I said, “When does the eastbound bus come through?”

He looked at me funny again and said, “There aren’t any more eastbound buses.”

And I said, “…What?”

It turns out I had misread a pretty critical detail on the bus schedule. There is in fact a bus that departs Kantishna at 8:00pm, but doesn’t go to the park entrance. It only goes to Wonder Lake Campground, at mile 85, where the bus and driver stop for the night.

If you’re standing at the Eielson Visitor Center, 66 miles from your car, at 7:445pm, there won’t be a bus or anything else to take you out of the park until 8:00am the next morning.

My only two options were to see if the visitor center maintenance guy, who may or may not have been around, would let me stay on a visitor center couch for the night, or get back on my bike and start pedaling.

Ordinarily, 66 miles wouldn’t be a big deal – I’ve ridden plenty of centuries. But with the shape I’m in, the elevation, the climbs, the gravel, and the extra gear, I wasn’t sure I could manage it. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a go.

I hoped it wouldn’t be as bad as I thought, and there was also that nonrefundable $500 flight reservation to consider. If I waited for the morning bus, I wouldn’t get to my car, or even be able to call the company to discuss the matter, until well after noon.

So I got back on the bike and started back East.

It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was worse. An adrenaline rush borne of being in “A Situation” leavened me for a few miles, but it quickly drained away. It wasn’t long before I was walking up every incline, and there was a lot of incline.

By the time I got to Toklat River, at mile 53, it had taken me nearly two hours to go 13 miles, and going another 53 miles just wasn’t possible. I remembered from my way in that there was a gift shop, ranger station, maintenance buildings, and I didn’t know what else at Toklat River, so I stopped to see if anyone was around who could, I dunno, waive a magic wand or something.

There were lights on in the gift shop, and there was a minivan parked out front, so I thought, “Aha! My salvation.” I figured this was a gift shop employee finishing out his shift stocking shelves and he was about to start whatever God awful commute someone working a gift shop 50 mile inside a wilderness area has to deal with.

I was right about his job, but wrong about his commute. In addition to maintenance buildings, there were residences nearby. He and other park staff live right there in the park, so he wasn’t going to be going to the park entrance that night and was visibly uninterested in making an extra trip on my account.

This guy… I can’t really blame him, he was just minding his own business, trying to do his job, but wow… A little sympathy would’ve been nice.

Then a backpacker showed up. He was in a similar but slightly more dire situation. He was a cancer survivor who was backpacking with a group when his body gave him some warning signs not to spend the night in the wilderness, so he made his way to Toklat.  He’d read the bus schedule the same way I had and thought the last bus would be coming by soon.

With now two needy faces looking at him, Mr. Personality made a few calls, and another member of park staff showed up. He also wasn’t heading out of the park, but seemed to have more going in the empathy department. Between the two of them, they decided they could put us up for the night in an empty staff cabin.

Considering I had been mulling the option of spending the night on the concrete floor of one the public latrines, I was very appreciative of being offered a cabin with a bed instead.

As I and my wayward companion settled in, I started thinking, which is almost always a bad idea. I still couldn’t let go of this $500 8am flight. Even though Fly Denali is a small company and I’m sure if they would have worked with me, I still felt like I “had to” be there at 8am. I had the uncharacteristically optimistic idea that maybe all I needed was to get off my feet for a while and catch a few hours of sleep, and then I could get back to it.

So instead of listening to my body and getting a full night’s rest, I set my alarm for 3am, reasoning that if I got on the road by 3:30, I’d be able to get to my car by 7:00, giving me an hour to get cleaned up and drive out the to the airstrip, about 10 miles outside the park.

I managed to get up and moving by 3:30, and realized soon enough that my optimism, like most optimism ever, was horribly misplaced. The first major climb, from Toklat River to Polychrome Pass, was 700 feet and just about killed me. I let gravity take me down to East Fork River, and then had the 845 foot climb to Sable Pass ahead of me.  There was no way I was going to be able maintain the kind of pace I needed to.  Still, I couldn’t stomach the idea of turning back, so I trudged on, knowing I’d make it to my car,  but not until well after my 7am deadline.

Maybe half an hour later, as I was struggling up towards Sable Pass, I happened to look behind me and saw, mercy of mercies, three sets of headlights coming down road behind me, maybe three miles back. If it had been just one set of headlights, I wouldn’t have been excited. There’s no telling where just one car is going. But I figured three vehicles in a small convoy could only be maintenance guys or contractors clearing their heavy trucks from the road before all the tour bus traffic started.

Sure enough, after about 20 minutes, three contractors, in a pickup and two semis, came up behind me. The guy in the pickup was only going to Teklanika River, at mile 29, but the truckers were going all the way out to the highway, and were happy to give me a ride.

And that was that. Instead of struggling through another 45 miles of mountain riding, I sat in comfort, riding shotgun in a semi (awesome) and having a great conversation with a trucker, who after a career playing semi pro baseball has been driving rigs in Alaska for 22 years.

He dropped me off near my car just after 7:00, I got a shower at one of the campgrounds, and got to Fly Denali just in time for my 8am flight… which was cancelled.

The weather was bad and the pilot had called it. After all that, all the exertions and the kindness of strangers, it couldn’t have mattered less whether I got there at 8am. I could have stayed in that cozy staff cabin and slept till noon, and it would’ve been fine.

When the girl working the counter at Fly Denali asked me if I would like to reschedule for 3:00pm that day, when the weather may be clearer, I just smiled and said that would great.

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