Alaska Marine Highway (Bellingham – Whittier)
Ok, let’s see whether I’ll ever get another English text done. May 12, when we boarded the MS Kennicott who would take us from Bellingham, WA to Whittier, AK, seem so far away. But I remember it was a sunny day and and as it was a downhill ride from the Oasis to the port, getting there was no problem. Neither was checking-in and soon we had our bikes safely stowed away and found our cabin. Of course, we did some sort of reconnaissance tour through the ship to find out what was where and how to get there. Our expensive little cabin (USD 442 for the cabin, USD 547 per person for transport plus USD 89 per bike bike) felt almost like a prison cell except, of course, that we each had a key. Life on the ship was not going to be super interesting, but having a lot of time and not much to do for a few days was ok. All the above-mentioned prices didn’t include any food at all but as there was a microwave available we had brought microwaveable food to keep us alive.
The ship left on time and after we had passed Vancouver, what was left to see were mountains with snow and hills with forests. The next morning at around 8 am we arrived at the cargo port of Ketchikan and stepped on Alaskan ground for the first time. Unlike the cruise ships we weren’t close to town so we took a bus to see the village. It wasn’t exciting but sort of cute. After two hours we took the bus back. As we knew that from Whittier to Anchorage we would have to cross a tunnel where bikes weren’t allowed, we asked the crew whether they might be willing to help by announcing that two cyclists were looking for a ride through the tunnel. They couldn’t because they feared they would be liable in case there was an accident. Yeah, well, we were still in the states. So we would spend some time talking to people in order to find that ride ourselves.
The next day we arrived in Juneau, Alaska’s capital, but this time we were some 15 miles from town so we didn’t even try to get there. This day we noted that the snow kept coming closer and closer to sea level. In the afternoon the ship left the “inside passage” and cruised through open sea which was sort of bumpy and we all staggered around like drunks. On the morning after Juneau we stopped in Yakutat. At 6 am, so we never bothered to find out anything about the place. All that day we saw, more or less close up, a white mountain range. Beautiful.
On the 5th morning, we got up at 5 am as we would reach Whittier at 6 am. But first we had to find our bikes as they had been moved to make room for cars. I never like it when other people handle my bike and sure enough, they’d put her in such a stupid place that my back pack’s rain cover got torn. At least we had found our hitch and waited outside for our RV to pick us up. The people had said they would turn off the main Highway shortly before Anchorage so we’d planned to ride into town from that spot. Turned out they went to Steward and the turn-off is at around 50 miles from Anchorage. We had no water for such a long stretch and otherwise weren’t prepared for it so we hold out our thumbs again. We were lucky and this time we got dropped off in the outskirts of the city. We found the house of our Warmshower host and spent several fun days there. Later, we took a bus to the Denali National Park and did a 6-hour bus trip inside the park. We saw some Grizzlies, lots of Dall Sheep, Caribous and Willow Ptarmigan. Our host, Sage, also took us to Homer on the Kenai Peninsula which is a very nice place. In the meantime, we’d realized that it would have made much more sense to stay on the ship until Homer and cycle up to Anchorage from there. But well, that idea had come too late. After this trip, we changed houses as Sage needed preparation time for her own upcoming cycling trip to Turkey. Thanks for the fun we had with you, Sage.
Anchorage, AK, to Tok
At Dave’s, we did our last preparations and finally set out in the beginning of June. Dave accompanied us the first day and camped with us at Kepler Bradley Lake Park, a very expensive but not particularly nice campground. In the morning, Dave turned back to Anchorage and we got going west. Thanks a lot Dave, for your help in Anchorage and for your company on the road to Palmer. After Palmer the landscape was nicer as there were fewer towns and houses. We’d noted that everything was very green now while some ten days earlier when we arrived in Anchorage, things were rather brown with the first shots just about appearing. Now, as we cycled up into the Talkeetna Mountains, the season seemed to be turned back and the green was lighter. We made it to Long Lake Recreation Site and got rained at in the evening.
It was still foggy and cold in the morning and all day long. We climbed more and more, saw the Matanuska River and Glacier which was pretty but not overly impressive. It rained heavily in the afternoon and when we arrived at the Eureka Lodge at 7 pm, we wondered whether we should ask for permission to camp. But then we saw how wet and muddy the terrain was and decided to keep going. The lodge was supposed to be on the top, so logically, a downhill stretch should follow. And this actually happened. On the second attempt we found the Little Nelchina Rec Site which had no sign whatsoever. When we pitched the tent the rain had sort of stopped but we had to take water from the puddles in the street as the Little Nelchina River was flooded and all brown. We’d arrived after 8 pm, something that we normally don’t like but it was no big deal because of the long Alaskan spring days.
We got up a little later the next morning and when we started the sun broke through the clouds. We never quite trusted the weather that day but it didn’t rain again. It was mostly gently downhill through endless taiga forests where very little people lived. We arrived in Glennallen in the afternoon, stocked up in the supermarket and found the Northern NightsCampground, a nice place and not too expensive ($ 15) with wifi, free, homemade desserts (only on Mondays and Fridays) and free coffee in the morning.
After Glennallen, the Glen HWY ended at the Richardson HWY. We didn’t like the 15 mile with a lot of traffic and were happier afterwards on the Tok-Cutoff. It was hilly and very green all day with threatening dark gray clouds around us but the sun won the duel. In the afternoon, a car stopped and the driver gave us the card of the Red Eagle Lodge, a place some 9 miles further on that offers camping. For $ 13. That sounded ok after what we knew and we figured we would check it out. We liked it, so we stayed there. Actually, we liked it so much, that we stayed two nights. That gave us one day to just hang out, write blog and watch the rain from inside a cozy house. The showers there were free too and the breakfast we had one day for $ 5 was well worth it.
The next day was hilly a usual, windy, headwindy of course, the same dark green forests and we saw our first black bear. We had our lunch break at a place called Midway Services. They have free coffee and let cyclists sleep in an old bus for free. They say they want to make friends, not money. Very nice people. We kept going, though, for we wanted to make it to Tok the next day. 25 km later we asked at Mentasta Lodge whether we were allowed to camp there and got an ok. And hundreds of mosquitos for company. We were also warned that bears visit often but that night, none came.
It’s some 80 km from Mentasta Lodge to Tok, the last 20 of which flat. We met some other cyclists, saw a moose mother with a baby far away and another moose relatively close to the road. And had some rain showers every now and then. We made it to Tok after a particularly long shower but when we reached the town the sun was out again. In Tok we had a Couchsurfer place to stay where we met the Family Pedaleros German family with a one year old girl, also cycling. They had arrived the day before and had left us the trailer, the place for the guests, and had pitched their tent, which was a very nice gesture. It was neat to talk to other cyclists for longer than a few minutes and Ronia, the girl, was very entertaining. We hadn’t seen many children for a long time. Chip, although we never met you, thanks for letting us stay in your trailer.
Tok to Dawson City, CAN
We stayed two nights in Tok, then set out again. We followed the Alaska HWY for some 20 km, then turned north onto the Taylor HWY. From that minute on it was constantly up and down, although much more up than down. And around us were taiga forests again. Meaning spruce trees as far as you can see, the only change being them alive or burned. And the burned areas were huge. At one point there was no more down, just up, up, up. In the afternoon we realized that we wouldn’t find any water and waved down a trailer. The German couple was very nice and not only gave us lots of water but also two muffins. That night was our first wild camp in North America and we were very careful about not cooking close to our tent and storing all food and smelly items far away. The thing with hanging the bags from a tree was a mission impossible from the beginning: no more trees that far up on the mountain. So we wondered whether, even if no bear finds a bag, they might get ripped open by other animals like squirrels or mice.
Nothing happened to our food whatsoever. The morning was cool but sunny and after a few kms of climbing we enjoyed a long descent, had a flatish stretch and then the good old up and down again. The landscape hadn’t changed a bit, it was still hilly Taiga. Either dark green or black/brown. In spite of the constant headwind we reached the tiny gold mining town of Chicken by around noon, decided we liked the place and as we found a campground, the Chicken Creek RV Park next to the Goldpanner, where cyclists only paid $ 4.99/tent, we decided to stay. As this was going to be our last stop in the US, we spent our last US-Dollars for good food and hung out in the warm sun.
The pavement had ended a few km before Chicken but the gravel road was ok for the next several kilometers. The day began with a sort of long climb and a nice descent into the next valley where they were busy resurfacing the road. Meaning, the nice hard surface got a new layer of gravel which made our lives miserable and dusty. Also meaning that trucks transporting said gravel kept passing us making things even dustier. We climbed the second hill of the day trying to fight armies of mosquitos who could easily fly as fast as we pedaled. The views were cool and so was the air, perfect for cycling. We sped down into another valley and began climbing the next hill. On the top we realized that we had reached some sort of high plateau with endless views of surrounding valleys and lower hills. This is where the road split up, the Taylor HWY going to Eagle, the Top of the World HWY to Dawson City in Canada. That was our direction. It was cloudy by now and we hoped it wouldn’t rain for another while. We made it to the almost non-existing place of Boundary. There used to be a lodge but it’s burned down. The owner still lives there and he let us stay in a small and rustic cabin, for which we were grateful as it began to rain soon. Actually, to pour down. And it didn’t stop until the next evening.
This is not perfectly true. When we got up in the morning it didn’t rain. It was just foggy and wet. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have left the cabin. We didn’t like the dense fog but we still got going. Slowly, we climbed up the last 6 km on a sticky-wet dirt road to the Canadian border. We couldn’t see very far because of the fog and hoped for easy immigration procedures as we didn’t feel like standing around in these cold temperatures. It was easy and fast. There even was some kind of pavement on the Canadian side. Extremely bad pavement though and it didn’t last very long. The road turned out to be rather brutal. Very steep climbs with almost zero visibility. Ok, nobody else saw more than we did and nobody drove fast but it still sucked. Of course, it began to rain soon and the road, more dirt than pavement by then, got even stickier. Up and down we pedaled, around that bend and yet another curve, not knowing when the promised long descent to Dawson City would begin. This highway is well known for its great views, or so some people say. We couldn’t tell, all we ever saw were clouds and rain. And maybe every now and then some distant valleys, but nothing distinctive. At around 8 pm we gave up, pitching the tent next to the road on a patch of gravel. We didn’t even try to hide, who would try to harm us there? At least it didn’t rain anymore.
Another day started, first cloudy and cool and with more up and down. After 12 km the descent down to the Yukon River began. It was cold, fast and great fun. And the sun was shining. We checked out the two CG and decided to stay in the more expensive on that was in town, had more amenities and less mosquitos. We did a few touristy things like a tour to a working gold mine (we got it for free) and a visit to the Slow Rush Kennels that belongs to a New Yorker lady who plans to take part in the next Yukon Quest. We did a lot of shopping and planning for our next adventure, the Dempster Highway.