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Winter Bikepacking

A two month bike tour of the Alaska interior during the heart of winter

Story by Glenn Charles February 25th, 2014

The Plan

There was no plan, it was very simple, fly into Anchorage with my Mukluk, get supplies, head north and see where it led. The beauty of travel like this is you become open to any and all possibilities — a philosophy that I try and carry over into my daily life.

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some people have no concept

First note, a fully loaded fat bike, and I mean fully loaded, is incredibly difficult to pedal, not only on the road but especially in the snow. I had stopped at a local bike shop looking for advice on routes north towards Denali. The shop directed me to Hatcher pass, a route that during the summer is very doable by bike, yet in the winter, well, I would find not so much. I cycled up and up, two days to reach the top, only to discover that I could not even get my bike over the snow plowed berm that would allow me to even contemplate going over the pass. Depressed and tired, I sat and ate lunch contemplating the only choice available — back down the road I went. The next day, a huge snowstorm hit which surely would have stranded me up on that mountain…. Food for thought egh?

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The view from the top

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prototypes

I knew that I would be carrying quite the load for this trip and that a simple Tarp & Bivy solution was not sufficient. I talked to Mike from Hyperlite Mountain Gear about my requirements and he built me one of the first Mids that HMG would produce. With lines and an MSR pole it weighed barely a pound — the mid was the finest shelter I have ever owned, simply a brilliant piece of kit.

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Talkeetna

I had heard there was a bike race that was going to happen in Talkeetna, so I took the detour into the town famed for its Denali Guides and inspiration for the TV show ”"Northern Exposure”". The people of this town were open and friendly providing me with much needed shelter, good food, and some fine micro brews. The day after I arrived, the race took place and I had the opportunity to capture the event on camera.

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Racer crossing the river

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shelter and the open road

I had no idea what life on the winter Alaska road would be like. Many had warned me that it was a bit sketchy for cyclists in the summer, but in winter it was darn near nuts. I would find that I had misjudged two very important things. First would be the complete whiteouts that occurred each time one of the many trucks using this North-South route would pass. After passing me by, any car or truck following that truck would be incapable of seeing my bike, no matter how many flashing lights I had attached. Scared shit-less would be the appropriate term.

Second issue, camping. I had just assumed, like I always do, that when the day was done I would head off into the woods and wild camp. Leaving no trace, this had been my method for years. The problem? Well, for the most part there was up to 6 feet of snow in the woods that needed trudging through and that was after you figured out how to get over the 10 foot berm of snow created by the plows. To say I had misjudged winter camping in Alaska was an understatement. Each night, making camp was often an hour or longer chore as I trudged myself and my gear far enough away from the road to safely camp.

Oh, and one more thing, everything, and I mean everything, freezes…

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almost there

Getting closer to Denali by the day, the landscape changed, becoming surreal with stunning views of the distant mountains.


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What are these photos about?

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Denali

It took me a little more than a week to reach Denali where I would basecamp for the week, including my 50th birthday. Denali keeps a working set of sled dogs in the park which you can visit as well as one open campground where you can camp at no expense. A stark contrast to the insanity of summer in the park, I took full advantage of the facilities.

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Basecamp

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miles of trails

The dogs run from the kennels, along the park road and then into the back country. This made for stellar snow biking as I explored the park each day. It would be an incredible trip to set off for a 3-5 day trip out into the park back country — perhaps next time?

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selfies

No one else to take my picture in this stunning scenery, I set the camera on a tripod with an interval timer going and rode up and down the pass trying to get the right shot.

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a new friend

While my plans were loose, I had actually hoped to reach Fairbanks, explore the hot springs and meet up with my new buddy Josh. After hitting -36 on my birthday I decided that I had gone far enough north on bike. Josh loaded up his van, drove to Denali and we took a trip out towards the ‘'Old Bus’', made famous in the book and movie, “"Into the Wild”". We did not make it to the bus, but did have a spectacular ride. It was on that day that I was treated with my first full view of The Mountain.

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Mushing Tours

Local guides take tourists out on day long mushing tours

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Heading south

I caught the train right out of the park on its weekly run southbound back to Anchorage. From there I got my way down to Homer for the annual Fatbike Festival. Homer, I have to say, is an awesome place to visit. Good people and stunning scenery, along with the starting point for my trip north along the Kenai Peninsula beach.

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coming together

Beer, bikes, beaches, bonfires and an obstacle course. All came together to create a fantastic gathering of like minded Fatbikers.

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What are these photos about?

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Miles of beach

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the obstacle course

What are these photos about?

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heading north

My time in Homer was done and the goal now was to ride north, as far as possible, along the frozen beaches and river crossing. I made it 2 days north of Kenai before being turned back by an inability to get off the beach and find fresh water.

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Obstacles

Large blocks of ice would create a constant stream of obstacles as I worked my way north. During the day the ice would begin to melt in the warm daylight sun only to freeze at night making riding the following morning a bit treacherous.

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beach camp

Camped on a remote location north of Kenai.

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What are these photos about?

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Seward

After finishing the beaches of the Kenai, I took a road detour down to visit the town of Seward, home to pristine glaciated waters. While there I longed for my Kayak and paddling gear as the winter weather had gone mild and conditions were ripe for an on-water tour.

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What are these photos about?

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What are these photos about?

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some people are nuts

Working my way back towards Anchorage, from Seward, I made one of the rare mistakes of my trip. I inadvertently left camp without refilling my water bottles, wrongly thinking that I could find water on the way (yes, I could have melted snow, but I honestly kept thinking I would find water….) Seven hours later I came upon this scene of Snow Mobile riders taking their machines higher and higher up the face of this mountain. After watching in awe for a while, I was able to bum a liter of water off some riders who ironically, thought it was I that was nuts.

What are these photos about?

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Epic Anchorage Riding

Trips are meant to be adventures, and for me, a huge part of that is who I am going to meet and what types of connections will I make. Not connections in the business sense, but connections on a personal level. On this trip I was lucky to make several amazing connections which turned into solid friendships. On my return to Anchorage, one of my new friends, Tony, opened his apartment to me while I finished up my final week in Alaska. Part of this stay included several outings riding the amazing trails in and around the city. Anchorage in and of itself has some of the finest snow based single track I have ever had the pleasure of riding.

My second big connection, was with Dan Bailey. Dan was the first person I met in Alaska, helping me navigate the trails out of Anchorage when I was just starting my trip. The trails that crisscross the city are used by bikers, hikers, skate skier and cross country skiers to travel and exercise during the short days of winter. On my return to Anchorage, Dan, like Tony, hosted me for a couple of nights in his house and offered up my first ever ride in a single prop airplane. Seeing Alaska by small plane is something that everyone should experience.

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Knik Glacier

My final treat for the trip would be a bike ride out to the Knik Glacier with Dan and his wife Amy. The conditions were absolutely perfect for our ride to the head of the glacier. Following frozen river beds and dog sled trails we wound our way through the frozen tundra before finally reaching the glaciated water. The year before I had seen a video of fatbikes riding out on the frozen waters amid the frozen structures making it one of the few absolutes that I wanted to accomplish. I must say it was a highlight of the trip.

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ice structures

What are these photos about?

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Photographers

This is what happens when you put two photo geeks together with fatbikes


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Freeze - Thaw - freeze

How many years has the cycle repeated itself as chunks of ice fall off the Glacier face during the summer only to become frozen statues during the winter. With the ensuing melt, they are free to float in the warm waters changing shape as the days lead to winter. The cycle repeats until they are no more.

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What are these photos about?

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studs would have been nice

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working our way back

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Oh alaska, oh alaska

This was my second adventure to Alaska. The first was a solo 6 month sea kayak adventure from Seattle to Glacier Bay. That trip changed my life and forever ingrained in me a true love of nature and a sense of universal connectedness. My second trip to Alaska only reinforced my love of this pristine landscape and my belief in the spirit of Adventure.

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Footnote: I spent two months touring the interior of Alaska, from Anchorage to Denali, down to Homer, the Kenai, Seward and Knik. It was another life changing adventure in AK