“How many days of food do you have?” asked the Denali National park Service backcountry permit form. Dylan gave a wry smile and wrote the number 5 in the blank, my stomach groned at the thought as I think about the 2 days packed in my frame bag. Maybe our plan is a bit ambitious, but that’s how a good trip usually starts.
Our plan was to join two methods of travel, the mountain bike and the 4 lb inflatable packraft (www.alpackaraft.com) packrafts are little known to the rest of the world, but have been used for decades by Alaskan adventurers to float remote rivers and access areas without all the weight and hassle of bigger kayaks and rafts. New Alpackas are light, durable and have opened up many new backcountry travel possibilities, including far flung mountain bike routes involving rivers...
So back to the real plan, bike 56 miles of the gravel Denali park road, over Sable and Polychrome passes, then hit the Toklat River, strap our bikes to the packrafts and float it north out of the Alaska Range into the interior to the confluence of the East Fork. From there we would attempt to find the remains of the famed “Stampede trail” an old mining road blazed back in the 1930’ but more recently popularized by the death of Christoper Mc Candless and the “Into the Wild” book and film. We’d take the trail and ride it back to the highway, and close the loop. 2 days, no problem, this is going to be fun!
Starting on the Denali Park Road:
Kellie at mile 50, cresting Polychrome pass, a bit of clouds and rain, but no big deal. Mt McKinley is back there somewhere…
We biked the road with a bit of urgency, we got a late 2:00 pm start and we were hoping to float the river that night. We descended Polychrome sometime around 8:00pm and hit the Toklat river which gave some fun gravel bar riding, it was nice to be off the road and heading into the unknown.
We quickly decided that rather than hassle and get wet with the boats and just get wet again, that we’d make an early camp and hit the river in the morning, we were all kinda tired anyway.
Dylan’s dinner – give the man cookie dough and cheese and he’ll go many hundreds of miles.
Rain all night gave way to a bluebird morning, we were stoked:
Rigging the rafts, none of us had done this before so there was a bit of trial and error involved…
Finally we hit the river, being a big braided mess there were fun sections like this but mixed in with lots of grounding out on shallow gravel bars and walking in the 34 degree glacier water. Typical packrafting really.
Passing by Mt. Sheldon, named after Alaska’s famous bush pilot that pioneered glacier landings in support of mountaineering expeditions.
Down stream travel was pretty good, but since we opted to go light, we left the drysuits at home, shaking the cold that creeps in from splashing, walking and sitting in glacier river water is hard to break. And a real effort must be made to keep hypothermia at bay. Here is one of our several “get out and run” stops with thunderclouds looming…
Past more shelf ice…
We were now in the interior and had picked up several other major rivers which quickened the travel as the river grew. After 12+ hours on the river, and chilled to the bone we hit the East fork confluence, took out and quickly built a bon fire with numb limbs to warm up and dry out. fire = life..
So there we were, quite remote with lots of uncertainties of what lay ahead and pretty understimated on food, the weather was perfect however and we were all eager to get back on our bikes the next morning.
Dylan finds some shelf ice to ride (it was pretty slushy..)
One of the many, many river crossings traveling up the east fork gravel bars:
Here is when things start to get fussy, there was no sign of the stampede trail, and the map we brought didn’t have much else to show, we just generally knew we needed to get off the river and contour around a ridgeline that we could barely see from the river bed. It was hard to leave the relative ease of travel on the river and dive head first into the bushwack, but that’s what needed to happen. The compass came out, pedals & bar ends removed and weight transferred to backpacks for easier pushing.
After an hour we broke out of the forrest and into a huge tussuk field, The visability was great, but pushing bikes through the million mounds of grass was Type B fun for sure.
We noticed what we thought was the Stampeede trail road bed cutting up the hillside far in the distance, so we made a b-line towards that…
Once we wre on it though it really was evident that it was built in the 1930’s and not used since! Alder schwackfest!
The trail was so faint it simply disappeared at times, re-claimed by nature. We kept pushing on up the ridgeline, knowing that somewhere distant was the Sashana River, site of the bus, and it would be a decent trail from there.
Looking back at the tussock plain we left behind
The food situation was gnawing, mentally pushing through wilderness like this, going on a king size snickers all day for 12 hours and having only a cliff bar to go is tougher mentally than it is physically. After a few more hours we reached a point where we could see the Sashana River valley far in the distance. We will go there...
Having a definite landmark to march too made things a bit easier and lifted the uncertainties a bit. Hours more of pushing and sidehilling through tussocks and mosquitos brough dusk and we hit the Sashana River at about midnight. Nice when it dosent get dark isn’t it?
Some of the many wolf and bear tracks we passed:
The temps dropped into the low 40’s on the river and we all in go-mode but feeling the last 15+ hours of effort on very limited food. It got hard to stay warm… them Kellie stops “ do you smell smoke?” the moment it came out of her mouth I smelt it too. Someone was having a campfire. A few more bends up the river and an obvious ATV trail headed straight uphill – the first sign of a real and used trail yet. A short push uphill and there it was – fire, people and the Fairbanks 142 Bus.
The warmth of the fire was rejuvenating and the other campers there gave us some rammen and granola bars. They seemed pretty amazed that we came out from the other end of the trail with bikes. We decided to just crash by the fire for the night and ride out the full length of the Stampeede trail in the morning.
It was quite Ironic, given the history about the buss and the ”Into the Wild” story, that here we were, having our own adventure, out of food. It all added to the meaning of the place.
The next day was great, nice to be back riding our bikes again after rafting and pushing them all this way. The trail was better than we had expected, sometimes at least:
Reaching the Teklanika River, a big one, this is the river that McCandless could not cross when he tried to hike out to get food. I could imagine how much higher it would be later in the year when the glaciers are melting.
The bikes were holding up pretty good given the abuse, until this, it was on the spindle for me for the final 25 miles.
What the hell is that?
A few hours later we were back in tourist land at the Denali park entrance mowing down burittos and ice cream..
Lots more to tell, incredible trip! with two bonus days!
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