Gray Grizzlies 10: Adventure on the Denali Highway

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“Would you happen to have an extra bottle of water?” asked a meek female voice from just behind me.

The Gray Grizzlies were just getting ready to pull away from an overlook above the Delta River on Route 4, The Richardson Highway, just south of Delta Junction, Alaska. It was a gorgeous, clear day; we had left the smoke and fires that were plaguing much of Alaska behind, at least for now. Looking south across the Delta River toward the Alaska Range McGinnis Peak, Mt. Shand, and Mt. Moffit rose up from lesser peaks around them. We were headed toward Thompson Pass across the Alaska Range and past Worthington Glacier, one of the few glaciers in the world that you can drive to.

Looking south across the Delta River toward the Alaska Range.

I turned my head and lifted my face shield to see where the voice asking for water was coming from. She was straddling her bicycle flushed and perspiring from her up-hill climb out of the Delta River valley. She was clearly a long-distance, experienced bicyclist with a bike outfitted with large saddlebags and four water bottles. But now those bottles must have been empty.

“Why, yeah,” I said, “we have an extra bottle of water. It looks like you could use more than one; how about a couple.” Because we were departing the overlook, Don, Richard and I were already talking via our helmet intercoms. “Hey Richard,” I said. “This lady next to me needs a couple of bottles of water.” “I’m on it,” he replied.

Karen from Ireland, a long-distance bicyclist riding throughout Alaska. She needed some extra drinking water and we were happy to oblige.

“My name is Karen,” she said with an accent I didn’t recognize. She extended her hand and said, “I didn’t think Alaska was going to be this hot!” And I didn’t think Thompson Pass would be as challenging as it was. I guess I underestimated how much water I would need.” Karen was from Ireland. She had ridden all around her home country and was now on a solo bicycle trip from Valdez to Anchorage then north to Denali.

She took a long drink from one of the cold bottles of water Richard had given her, gazed out across the Delta River toward the Alaska Range and said: “This place is amazing, the openness, the vast landscapes, the wilderness, the beauty, the isolation, the adventure.” She was describing Alaska but “isolation” and “adventure” described her reaction to it.

The Alaska Range north of Thompson Pass.

I did a car trip to Karen’s home country, Ireland, recently with my wife and granddaughter. No matter how far out in the country we drove we were always in public view, and I felt claustrophobic on the narrow roads with stone fences on either side with nowhere to pull off except some public roadhouse to buy a cup of coffee or tea to use the toilet. Yes, by comparison, Alaska is an adventure.

The definition of adventure is “a risky or unexpected undertaking.” In addition to “trip” and “experience”, synonyms include feat, chance, endangerment, hazard, jeopardy, and peril. Karen was drawn to Alaska for adventure, as were we. We would meet other adventurous souls. The four of us chatted for a while. We made sure Karen had enough water to reach her next service point, then watched her pedal away.

Our route from Fairbanks to Anchorage via the Denali Highway. For a more detailed map go HERE.

From Fairbanks, we were headed to Denali National Park, but if you look at the map above you might wonder about the dogleg in our route SE back to Delta Junction, down to Paxson, west across to Cantwell then back north to Denali Park. That is quite a diversion compared to a straight shot SW from Fairbanks down to Denali. This extended route was all about seeing and experiencing the Alaska Range and riding the east-to-west Denali Highway from Paxson to Cantwell.

The Denali Highway paralleled the Alaska Range.

When the Denali Highway opened in 1957, it was the only road to Denali National Park. The Parks Highway north from Anchorage opened in 1972 providing direct, paved access to Denali National Park and relegating the Denali Highway to a little-used, gravel, backcountry, wilderness road. But wow, what a beautiful 134 miles.

The Denali Highway is one of the most spectacular drives in the world. Much of the route lies above timberline, so the vistas go on forever. The road parallels the southern edge of the Alaska Range so snow-capped mountain peaks and glaciers are always in view. It traverses Maclaren Summit, the second-highest highway pass in the state, so the vegetation changes from boreal forest to taiga to tundra with numerous lakes and streams punctuating the landscape.

View from the Denali Highway.

You meet the nicest people at scenic overlooks! This time it was Joe on his old 1978 BMW Boxer motorcycle. I had one at home just like it so it gave me entree to shake his hand and ask about it among other things. Joe spent winters in Anchorage but spent most of the year alone in his cabin about 50 miles west in the direction we were going. He loved the isolation of the Denali Highway and did odd jobs in the area wherever he could find them. “Does it ever get lonely out here?” I asked. “Not really,” he said. “The adventure of it all keeps me occupied.”

This is Joe who lives in a cabin off the Denali Highway. He let us know what to expect as we headed west and gave us a good tip on where to camp.

“By the way, as you go by Maclaren River Lodge, stop and say hi to Alan and Susie who own the place,” Joe said as he pulled away on his old Boxer. ” I helped them build the guest cabins at the lodge. I heard they are having a bit of a July 4th weekend celebration. Tell them Joe sent you.”

The Maclaren Glacier flowing south out of the Alaska Range feeds the Maclaren River.

It was the July 4th holiday so, according to Joe, there were more people on the highway than usual; every once in a while we passed a car or camper going in the opposite direction. For the most part, however, we had the road to ourselves. The chatter of our wheels on the ever-present washboard and pothole road surface and slippery gravel in places did not detract from the enjoyment of being surrounded by vast wilderness with breathtaking views in every direction. There are virtually no man-made structures anywhere except for the road, a few bridges, and a couple of well-placed lodges that provide sustenance to travelers along the 135-mile traverse.

Bridge over the Susitna River on the Denali Highway.

The Maclaren River Lodge is a favorite destination for hunters, hikers, fishermen, wildlife viewers, and photographers. In the winter months, the road is closed to thru traffic. According to Alan who co-owns the lodge with his wife Susie, access is via snowmobile, dog team, or air. In the winter, visitors explore the endless trails by snow machine, cross country ski or snowshoes and return to the comfort of the Lodge cabins.

The Maclaren River Lodge on the remote Denali Highway.

After killing my engine beside the Lodge, I heard the sound of a guitar and a melodic voice from the porch around the corner of the building. Susie’s niece, Makenna, was playing favorites by Reba, Dolly, and Loretta. She was only 15 but a real talent. We learned she was studying both music and voice with professionals. Alan and Susie’s daughter Rachel was minding the store, Alan was tending the BBQ grill, and friends and relatives were hanging out on the porch.

July 4th weekend gathering on the porch of the Maclaren River Lodge along the Denali Highway, Alaska.

“Go check with Alan at the grill; I know he still has ribs and chicken and there are several salads on the table next to the grill,” Rachel said. That was great news because we were hungry after the day’s ride. Rachel continued: “We don’t have a place to camp up here by the lodge but you can go back across the bridge and camp on the gravel deck next to the river. It is State property, but camping there is not a problem.”

Richard and Don with Rachel who was minding the store and keeping the place organized.

As we enjoyed our BBQed ribs and listened to Makenna perform, we realized this was essentially a private party. Nonetheless, we were treated like friends and family. Between Don who was always charming and Richard who flirted with nearly every woman we met, we learned a lot about this family from Rachel and Susie. We were certain they were “real” Alaskans, that is, born and raised in the state given the life they lived in this remote part of Alaska. But no, they were from West Virginia and moved here not that long ago. Susie said the whole family moved to Alaska looking for adventure and found it in a really big way.

As we rubbed our full bellies, bid goodnight and turned toward our bikes, Susie said, “I’ll be fixing breakfast at eight in the morning.”

Camping on the bank of the Maclaren River just off the Denali Highway in central Alaska.

Our camp on the bank of the Maclaren River was probably the most peaceful place we had been since departing on this trip. After setting up camp, we sat in our chairs at the river’s edge looking afar at the Maclaren Glacier flowing from the Alaska Range. For just a little while, our adventure transformed into a calm, serene, consciousness. Except for a gentle rustling of the water around some rocks, and a faint buzz from bees doing their work in the pink fireweed around us, it was quiet, very quiet. “I was able to hear myself living.”

“I would like to spend the rest of my days in a place so silent–and working at a pace so slow–that I would be able to hear myself living.”—————–Elizabeth Gilbert

Peace and quiet on the bank of the Maclaren River looking out at the Alaska Range.

For more motorcycling adventure stories, go HERE.