Cycling Stories

Cycling Alaska’s Frontier

December 28, 2019

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Cycling Alaska’s Frontier

“The moose along the Glenn Highway were prevalent—and enormous. They’re dangerous animals with predatory instincts. If I had to face off against a bear or a moose, I’d go with a bear.”

Robert Rootes

I’ve been an avid cyclist for most of my life.

There’s something intrinsic about its movement, the momentum, the rotation of the chainring—making the bike work for you instead of working for the bike. It feels natural, unforced.

Add to this joy Alaska’s wide-open spaces, and the experience is challenging to put into words. Allow me to try.

Yellow Florida Sunshine

My first long-distance bike was a puke yellow Raleigh Record ten-speed that I purchased at a pawn shop in Florida when I was a sophomore in high school. It already had a lot of wear and tear, and I added to it by riding on mountain bike terrain even before mountain bikes existed.

I rode that bike everywhere. I avoided traffic, dodged intersections. I had a job but didn’t need a car since I didn’t have a girlfriend.

And it was at that job where someone decided they needed my dingy Raleigh more than me. After my shift, I walked eight miles back home.

Shortly after that, I moved out of Florida.

Experiencing Upstate New York

While finishing high school in Upstate New York, I enjoyed riding the seemingly endless rural countryside roads and trails.

Instead of Florida’s virtually changeless landscape, blistering pavement, and featureless buildings, I experienced the splendor of the spread-out rural county roads and the foothills that encase Steuben County in forest-rich slopes and green pastures.

There, I rode an average of 18 miles a day.

It was in New York State, where I also experienced the thrill of downhill riding. The exhilaration of combining my smallest rear cog with my largest front chainring—known as the ‘big gear—while working my hardest to go as fast as possible.

St. Mary’s, Alaska

In 1999, I moved from Bath, NY, to Alaska. And not just any place in the state.

I planted myself in a tiny ‘bush’ village called St. Mary’s, which as of 2016, had an estimated population of 550. It sits on the Yukon River, with a predominantly indigenous people of Alaska Natives tribally recognized by the Yuupiit of Andreafsky and the Algaaciq Tribal Government.

St. Mary’s, Alaska. Credit: St. Mary’s School District

While the area spans about 50 square miles, the size of the city itself is only six square miles. There’s just one road through town—and the only paved surface is the tarmac for the airport, which is one mile away.

The situation made for frequent but short cycling trips. And because most of the village kids didn’t have bicycles, I was an anomaly.

That’s why when someone stole my bike, I knocked on each door of the town’s forty-some households before I found two ten-year-old kids trying to straddle the 21-inch aluminum frame.

Their parents didn’t see the harm in ‘borrowing’ the bicycle. “Furthermore,” they pointed out, “it wasn’t like the kids could go anywhere.”

Still, I gave them a little education on what was acceptable and not acceptable when it came to other people’s property.

Subsequently, I stored the bike for the duration of my tenure in St. Mary’s.

Kotzebue, Alaska

When I moved to Kotzebue, Alaska, I made my first (and only) major cycling-related purchase: a Cannondale SOBE Team Lizard mountain bike. Even though it has a few thousand miles on the frame, I still own it today.

I love the sleek black and vibrant lime-green gecko that graces its frame. It’s a moving statement, aside from the obvious advertising. It has some value with cycling aficionados as well.

The Cannondale FS1000SL. Credit: MTBR.com

Kotzebue (pronounced KOTS-é-bew) is a harbor city on the Baldwin Peninsula that faces the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Sea, and sits approximately 33 miles above the Arctic Circle.

As an avid cyclist, living there proved challenging. Snowfall was heavy; many times, too heavy to ride. Also, considering that it’s nighttime for 20 consecutive days during winter, riding in the snowy darkness isn’t something I wanted to do regularly.

Summer was a different experience, though, when the average temperature hovers around sixty degrees.

During warmer months, structures avoid sinking into the permafrost by using steel frames and stilts. They’re also elevated, which prevents heat from seeping into the tundra layers. More significant buildings even use long, thick poles filled with refrigerant to keep the ground frozen underneath the structure.

Kotzebue, Alaska. Credit: National Geographic

It was always exciting riding around town and seeing large metal poles underneath buildings, which look a lot like standard utility poles that carry power lines. But these are random, at odd angles, and use the natural elements to move the refrigerant around inside. 

While there were more roads and longer cycling distances available, most of the streets in Kotzebue were gravel. Not just pea gravel, but industrial gravel. The kind used for temporary roads at construction sites.

In addition, Kotzebue boasts a unique rural road built above the tundra, much like a nature walk. The eight miles of winding roadway start at the Cemetery Access road and meander into the surrounding tundra. Ted Stevens Way, the access road’s namesake, loops around the region’s Lagoon.

Eventually, the gravel road transitions into an Air Force-maintained asphalt section adjacent to the airport.

Downtown Kotzebue, Alaska offers one of the few paved cycling roads in the area. Credit: KNOM.org

Needless to say, cycling in Kotzebue isn’t for everyone. If you’re up for an adventure, though, it can pay off.

Hitting the road early while the migratory birds flee their wild blueberry bushes, and the golden eagles soar overhead looking for shrews or snowshoe rabbits, is an experience like no other.

Wolves didn’t usually get too close to town, but when the timing was right, and the conditions were perfect, I could hear one calling to another in the distant mountainsides.

Nighttime was when black bears usually scavenged, so I learned that it was wise to carry a whistle or make a lot of noise while riding. Most of the time, I found that the growl of the tread on my massive tires did the trick, letting the bears know I was in the area far in advance.

Cycling in Kotzebue was satisfying. But, it wasn’t until I moved to Wasilla and experienced their more extensive road system that I entirely found fruitful cycling in Alaska.

Wasilla, Alaska

Alaska is designed for nature-lovers.

And from Wasilla, I gained access to its wilderness via the state’s paved pathways, which extend thousands of miles alongside the highway system. Much of the federal roads along the Alaska Highway, from bottom to top and across most rural and residential areas, have tandem blacktop roadways that allow pedestrians and cyclists. 

And despite the vast wilderness that surrounds it, it’s challenging to get lost on the Alaskan road system.

Altogether, it was in Wasilla, where I found my long-distance Alaskan cycling niche. I learned that I could ride from the city to Anchorage in a few hours, which was gratifying because I could complete it quickly and still feel like I saw most of what the area offered. 

Moose, Denali Sunset, Rainbows, Oh My!

The moose along the Glenn Highway were prevalent—and enormous. They’re dangerous animals with predatory instincts. If I had to face off against a bear or a moose, I’d go with a bear.

Once, an Anchorage police officer pulled his cruiser between me and a calf while I rode, protecting me from its mother, who loomed nearby. If he didn’t, the cow would have likely taken drastic measures to destroy my beautiful mountain bike. Oh, and with me under its hooves!

An Alaskan bull moose. Credit: Wikipedia

I had the opportunity to see Denali sparkling at sunset. Sometimes, when conditions were right, I even saw Mount McKinley, its lofty peak free-floating above the flat, gray miasmic valley floor.

I once saw orographic fog, which looks like clouds pouring from a white waterfall over a mountainside. I braked hard along my route, waited 15 minutes, and watched mesmerized until it was over. 

Then, there was the time I witnessed three rainbows spanning the Palmer Flats following a heavy summer rain after the sun broke the cloud barrier during sunset.

I saw a lynx on the Parks Highway near Talkeetna, Alaska. It stopped in the middle of the road, sniffed the asphalt and looked at me, found both wanting, and then disappeared into the dogwood trees.

Ptarmigans? They’re not interested in cyclists. They also don’t know when to move out of the road, always waiting until the last moment. And with their spotted gray and mottled brown camouflage, they were difficult to spot when I was racing at a good clip.

I miss Alaska.

Yes, Virginia

We left Alaska a few years ago after my wife took a job she couldn’t refuse in Virginia.

Where we now live, a rural area in the northern part of the state, about an hour south of Washington, DC, it doesn’t have the same mountainous terrain. There aren’t any federally funded programs to encourage people outside. Most of the distracted drivers spend more time reading their smartphones instead of watching the road.

And with limited shoulders on the roads, I’m now forced to pack up the car and drive my bike to an area where I won’t get run over by someone texting.

It takes the adventure out of cycling.

Today, dust accumulates on the Cannondale’s handlebars, waiting patiently to ride Alaska’s open, unguarded roadways again, shining underneath its blissfully sprawling skies.

Robert Rootes is the author of fifteen novels. He holds a BA in English Literature and an AAS from the University of Alaska. After 15 years in Alaska, he and his family now reside in a land of confusion and taxes. He likes to know people read his work and encourages seeking him out.
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