Alaskan summer energy, at its height, seems endless. You don’t need lights because the sun never sets. Schedules are mostly irrelevant— ride late, sleep in, take breaks, or never stop. It’s all possible.
Then the dark starts eating into the day. In late August, we start losing minutes that cumulate into hours over weeks. It’s hard to adjust. Night returns. And maybe that’s part of what makes it so special. That fleeting feeling of freedom that leaves, but not forever.
I finish re-riding precious roads in August in a series of impulsive trips. I can feel time running out. My brother is driving out to McCarthy, where our great grandfather had a clothing store. He hasn’t been back in over twenty years. I catch a lift and pedal home via the Denali Highway. I fly to Fairbanks to ride to Eagle on the Yukon River. Fall colors come early in Alaska. The tundra turns red. Almost everything is closed.
Rue can’t ride because she has to focus on the video about our project in Colombia with Conservation International and Bikepacking.com. The story is about establishing a week-long bikepacking route that highlights the connection between Bogota, a city of ten million, and their water source, the paramos, a high elevation cloud forest that captures moisture and naturally filters it. The idea is to use the bicycle as a tool to witness land and make connections. We spent six weeks in Colombia in January and February to verify the route, make connections, and for Rue to document it.
Little did we know how the year would change. I’m really proud of this story, but also hate that it locks Rue behind a screen for so many hours editing. I just want her riding with me, seeing what I’m seeing and doing it all together.
I finish the season, much as I started it, with a virtual event organized by Rebecca Rusch. She has a three-day stage race for Labor Day weekend. In a regular year, it would be Rebecca’s Private Idaho that showcases the gravel riding around her home in Ketchum, Idaho. This year, it’s a free for all— match the distance and elevation and ride at least half dirt. My first stage is from home up Arctic Valley with Christina and Rue, the second is on the Petersville Road with a backside view of Denali, and the third is from our A-Frame cabin in Willow over Hatcher Pass and back home.
My brother takes my nephew Joshua to the cabin for an overnight and we meet them there. They’re roasting marshmallows and make me a s’more. Joshua was insistent on using wet wood, but it’s going all right. He’s eight years old and wearing my Dad’s law firm sweats from the ‘80s. We tuck him into bed in the loft and make pancakes for breakfast. The store didn’t have syrup, so we’re eating them with honey. My brother takes him up to the old mine on Hatcher’s Pass and I ride up there.
Stress is real. Climate is real. Rue is on deadline and I’m alone, riding into a headwind and freezing rain. I stop and pick wild blueberries. I’m blowing in the breeze, listening to a Steven King audiobook and plugging along.
An old friend meets me in Palmer. I won’t include too many details, as I want to protect her, but since I’ve seen her last she’s been battling cancer. She looks wonderful and she inspires me to the core— she always has, but despite the hardship, she doesn’t waver. It reminds me that every ride is a gift, no matter the conditions or the point. She reminds me that tonight, no matter how cold I get, I can go home and take a hot shower. She’s right.
The sun sets with forty miles to go. The rain doesn’t stop and the temperature drops. I didn’t bring any layers, I’m still in shorts and I can’t feel my fingers. The closer I get, the more familiar the terrain. I’m pedaling past Mirror Lake, then Chugiak, then Eagle River. I’m on the bike path paralleling the highway, past the military base. I turn at Mountain View past Russian Jack and my high school and I’m finally on the Chester Creek Trail. Five miles from home, I’m about as cold as I’ve ever been. I’ve traveled this stretch hundreds of times since I can remember— the entrance to my parents’ neighborhood up the hill past the Mormon Church, then the big field where I used to fall asleep in the afternoons coming home from overnight baking shifts, then the sketchy stretch past the Ford dealership and the astroturf field where we played all of our soccer games, then the gorilla park and then I cut up on the sidewalk on C Street.
I used to ride the other direction every day on my commute from cleaning the bar downtown to washing dishes in Spenard. Rue has been trying to call me for hours, but my hands are too numb to answer the phone and I’m so close. I climb the final hill and enter through the courtyard and knock on the door. She’s there. It’s over. I’m so happy to be home.
I spend the next month cooking meals for Rue and helping when I can. I help with the audio and write captions for the film, but there’s not much I can do. She has all the video skills.
I ride up Arctic Valley every other day and watch the leaves change color and finally fall off. I see many moose and porcupines and one day a lynx crosses my path too. From up high, there’s a view of the city and the water and the Sleeping Lady, our name for Mount Susitna just across Cook Inlet.
We celebrate my Dad’s 72nd birthday. I have my niece and nephew over for separate slumber parties. Gone are the days of camping on the beach and cooking hot dogs on the fire or stopping at the food truck at Point Woronzof for halibut and chips at 10 pm. We’re still riding, but we sleep inside and make soup. They still want to hit every bit of rolling singletrack on the way and I’m so glad it exists.
I’ve ridden Alaska— all of the roads at least once if not more. There are some that I’ll always dream of— the Denali Park Road full of animals and free of traffic and Hatcher Pass— especially in good weather. I would love to go back and set an FKT on the roads following the pipeline, 850 miles of mixed dirt and pavement from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez— the North Slope to the Gulf of Alaska.
It’s wide open country. Roads are a compromise. For better or worse, they dig into the land and expose it. If they exist, we should ride them. I am so grateful that I’ve gotten to pedal these miles in my home state. And more grateful when I get to ride them with Rue.
Full Lael Rides Alaska video to be released before the end of 2020.