At mid-morning in mid-March, the temperature along the frozen, snow-covered Knik River just north of Anchorage remained in the single digits. None of the fat bikers who flocked north from Alaska’s largest city to overflow the parking lot at the Hunter Creek tributary seemed to mind.
Overnight temperatures even colder had turned the snowmobile track heading east into white pavement. The snow crunched beneath the fat tires of dozens of cyclists converging on what is at the moment one of the 49th state’s most accessible and visually dramatic glaciers.
For 10 miles or so, the trail climbed ever so gently through scrub brush growing on the old gravel bars that dot the three-mile-wide channel of the wildly braided glacier river, crossed river channels with freshly frozen overflow, and wove away its way among icebergs now locked in the river ice of winter.
As morning shifted toward afternoon, a bright, spring sun warmed the country enough that hard pedaling cyclists had to peel layers to avoid getting soaked with sweat. The day felt warm, though the temperature never got out of the teens.
Maybe it was the bright light reflecting off the snow that made sunglasses vital. Maybe it was the radiant heat of the spring sun that was physically obvious any time the trail dipped into the cold recesses of valley shadows or broke from the shadows into the brightness.
The trail conditions were sometimes great, usually good and in a few places pockmarked and rough from what Alaskans call “moose holes,” the deep impressions the state’s 1,000-pound deer can make in hard-packed snow, or by sastrugi, the wind-pounded snow that forms into small, hard, sharp-ridges that can make a winter trail into the worst of washboard road.
Judging by the small crowd that gathered near the glacier’s face, the few patches of bad trail didn’t discourage anyone looking for a near-wildernss adventure just off the Alaska road system.
Most seemed content to stop there. A few got off their bikes to explore the jumble of ice that has calved from glacier to temporarily plug the channel of the river with its headwaters above Lake George another 8- or 10-miles deep in the Chugach Mountains.
From the top of the icefall, one found a good view of the Lake Fork of the Knik headed up into The Gorge, which is in summer defined by a towering wall of ice on one side and an even higher wall of rock on the other.
A few bikers did, however, make the portage over the ice into The Gorge where it was possible to ride for a while before the untracked snow became so soft it dictated more bike pushing than bike riding.
For some the effort was worth the view, though the snake-like tracks of fat-tires left in the snow made clear the work required. No matter what the marketing hype, fat-tired bikes do not “float” on soft snow.
The need either the crust snows of spring or some sort of pack, be it snowshoes or snomwachine, to make it easier to pedal than to push.
The riding was better on hard pack and ice even where tricky.
But there were places where it is doubtful even Danny Macaskill would have been able to ride.
Outside of The Gorge, there was plenty more to explore. The face of the Knik Glacier runs for miles across the head of the Knik Valley. It is in some places a broken wall of blue ice and in others a jumble of snow-covered bergs and seracs.
Along with a towering wall of crevassed ice, the blue-ice trail feature several ice caves – it is a good idea to stay out of them because of the danger of ice fall – some strange upwellings of water that form ponds that may or may not be frozen at any given time, and more than a few arched icebergs frozen in place for the winter.
Riding close to towering ice is not recommended. It can and has collapsed and killed people in Alaska. It becomes especially dangerous as the weather warms and the ice starts to destabilize.
Farther up this very valley, an Italian tourist was killed by falling ice only two year ago during an unusually warm Alaska winter. The state recorded 14 straight months with temperatures above normal. Since December of 2016, however, the cold has returned.
Temperatures were below normal in December, January and February, and March has started off well below normal. With temperatures in single digits, which helps to keep ice stable, some people can’t seem to resist the small danger in the novelty of riding through an iceberg. Where but in Alaska?
Others are content to simply take in the majesty of a land that global warming forgot. At least for now. At least for a few more years.
The Knik Valley, less than 50 miles northeast of Alaska’s largest city, still has plenty of ice, as do the massive ice fields that stretch far to the east from the glacier’s face into the Chugach. Most of these glaciers are retreating, but them seem in no rush.
It is still possible to get up close and personal with one if you wish.