Biking the Denali Highway

…with the Young and the Restless

“What kind of wildlife encounter will we experience?” That was my biggest question when we began our bicycle trip on the Denali Highway with our 11-year-old grandson. With that in mind, the three of us carried bear spray at our sides. My husband, Bill, and I are long-time Alaskans and even our young companion, Gauge, understands how to safely react to bears and moose and properly use bear deterrent.

We brought along our cab-over camper to be our “support and gear” vehicle, known as a SAG in the biking world. This presented our first dilemma. Both Bill and I wanted to pedal every inch of the highway, however, someone had to drive the truck. In order to accomplish this feat, we needed to journey from Cantwell to Paxson and back to Cantwell taking turns pedaling. We created a journal noting mileposts ridden by each biker so we could fill in the gaps on the return. Gauge was not sure how much he wanted to pedal, but he was certain he wanted to outdistance his grandparents.

We began our nine-day adventure on a beautiful, sunny day in early June knowing we were very lucky to have such nice weather. I was riding my hybrid, which is similar to a mountain bike, but with tires sized between a road and mountain bike. Gauge was on my mountain bike and Bill reluctantly left his mountain bike on the rack and drove the first leg of the trip. Since we had a late start, Bill was to drive along behind us, catch us for a break, then set out to find our campsite for the night. The Denali Highway begins in Cantwell with a short three-mile smooth stretch of pavement before turning to gravel for most of the 135 miles to Paxson. Once we encountered gravel we determined it was safe to pedal side by side. There was no traffic! Bill’s last words to us were, “Enjoy the scenery and stop to smell the roses.” We stopped briefly at creek crossings to marvel at the varied waterfowl and admire the blooming flowers.

We’d only traveled eight miles when the sky darkened and then, BOOM, it lit up with lightening. We were heading right into a thunderstorm. Bill had passed us about 20 minutes earlier and was nowhere in sight. Thankfully, we came upon him at a lakeside pullout just as the skies opened. We enjoyed a nice break in the comforts of the dry camper as we waited for the storm to pass. Gauge and I eventually biked another 10 miles, under blue skies, until we found the camper at a serene location along the Nenana River. We were just in time for happy hour and a hot dinner. Aaah, the benefits of traveling with support versus hauling tents and food on your bike!

The next morning dawned bright and sunny. We had another short day ahead of us since we planned to stay at the Brushkana River Campground and explore the area. Bill and I traded duties; while I buttoned up the camper and cleaned the campsite, Gauge pedaled with Papa. Of course, their day started with a big climb—love all those gears on our bikes! I passed the two of them on another uphill section and found a lunch spot on a high overlook. Despite the uphill climbs, the bikers were in good humor and anxious for the downhills. It became routine for the driver to fill a garbage bag with trash at each rendezvous or campsite along the way. Unfortunately, not everyone practices Leave No Trace along the Denali Highway’s numerous and scenic pull-offs.

We’d only traveled eight miles when the sky darkened and then, BOOM, it lit up with lightening. We were heading right into a thunderstorm. Bill had passed us about 20 minutes earlier and was nowhere in sight.

We had our choice of campsites at the Brushkana Campground as we were the only travelers. We selected a nice site on the river’s edge and then hiked a trail that eventually led us to a high bluff overlooking the Brushkana River. Below the bluff, we spotted a moose cow with her calf resting in the vegetation. The red hue of the newborn calf was highlighted against the green grass below. This calf was only a few days old! We watched as the cow crossed the river and its calf attempted to follow. The calf struggled in the current and retreated to shore. The cow seemed unfazed and continued to browse on the other side of the river while the calf bedded down. On our hike back to camp, we came upon several more cows and young calves, which had us all on edge. You definitely do not want to get between these ungulates and their young.

Back at the campsite, Gauge was exploring along the riverbank, when all of a sudden he ran back to the camper shouting, “There is a lone newborn calf across the river bleating loudly!” There was no cow in sight, so we all stayed near the camper. This little calf cried for a good 30 minutes then decided to cross the river to our campsite. We yelled, hoping to frighten it from crossing as the current was quite rapid. Amazingly, this leggy youngster made it across the river and came right to us. We retreated into the camper just as we spotted the cow on the other side of the river thrashing and calling for her calf. The cow slid down the bank and crashed across the river as the little one ran to mom to suckle; united at last. We wondered if they were the same pair we watched from the high bluff two hours earlier.
The next morning Gauge and I biked for 10 miles, then Bill pedaled solo for most of the afternoon. Later, Gauge and I took another shift biking. Ten miles farther we finally found Bill standing in the road waving us into our hidden site for the night. We had high hopes of making it to Tangle Lakes Campground the next night, which was only 44 miles away. Divvied into shifts the distance was easy to accomplish except for the uphill section from Maclaren River to Maclaren Summit, a 3,000 foot elevation gain in five miles. Gauge and I had the honors of owning that section. Although we stopped for a break on the crest of each false summit, we pedaled every inch of that hill. We created a mantra we shouted to each other to keep the momentum going—“my legs are pumping and my heart’s a thumping.” Bill even stopped and asked Gauge if he wanted a lift to the top. Gauge said, “If a 62-year-old can make it, then I can too.” I thought to myself, If an 11-year-old can make it, then I can too.

Teamwork prevailed! It was a delight to finally reach the summit, especially since the miles ahead of us were gently rolling hills in open country. The scene revealed a snowy Alaska Range with Landmark Gap beckoning in the distance. We were at 4,100 feet in elevation. We dodged Arctic ground squirrels crossing the road and stopped to listen to the whistling marmots. A nice downhill cruise lay ahead and we were pleasantly surprised when our tires found the smooth chipped seal of the road long before we expected pavement. True pavement begins east of the Tangle River.

We camped three nights at the Tangle Lakes Campground, partially because of the weather. It was our home base while we alternated cycling to Paxson, the end of the Denali Highway, and back to our campsite. The following morning we woke up to four inches of snow and decided to layover an additional day. Time to fish for Arctic grayling! Bill and Gauge caught breakfast for us during a sloppy snow storm while I ventured to Tangle Lakes Lodge seeking pie for an after-dinner treat.

The next day appeared promising for Bill’s turn to pedal up and over Maclaren Summit. Gauge and I set off in the camper, keeping an eye on the sky, and checking in with Bill at convenient locations. Just prior to reaching the top of the summit we drove into a blinding snowstorm. Bill was a couple of miles behind us, the road was narrow, and we couldn’t see to turn around. Instead I found a wide spot in the road to wait. It must have been a miserable uphill grind for Bill, however, he persevered. When the storm passed, we pressed on, switched bikers, and made good progress despite the snow delay.

During the last two days of our trip we collectively biked 85 miles. Bill and I accomplished our goal by pedaling the 135 mile length of the Denali Highway (one way or another). Gauge, true to his word, pedaled 138 miles. Luckily, we never crossed a bear, merely saw fresh scat, and only had one moose jump out in front of us on the road. Indeed, it was a wonderful trip and a great experience to share with our amazing grandson. Next summer, the McCarthy road!

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