Land of otherworldly adventures
KNIK GLACIER – Standing at the face of a 125-square-mile river of ice on Saturday, talking to public-minded businessman Mark Johnson (yes, it is possible to be both), fat-tired cyclist Doug O’Harra made the observation that defined it all:
“If we were in Kansas,” he said, “this would be on the license plate.”
Beside him to the north, the jagged and snow-covered peaks of the Chugach Mountains climbed for thousands of feet into a clear blue sky. To the south, winter veils of ice still clung to black walls of rock rising near straight up for hundreds of feet.
And to the east behind him, there was a jumble of ice that seemed to go on forever back toward Inner Lake George, a designated national treasure, and the massive Colony and Lake George glaciers fed by the snows that fall heavy on the 9,000 to 13,000 high peaks of the Chugach when winter’s storms sweep across the Pacific Ocean to slam into the Alaska underbelly.
Welcome to the frozen heart of Alaska, a wild and dangerous place that for a few weeks late each winter and into early spring can transform into an off-road cycling nirvana.
When even the locals who trek into the country can’t stop themselves from going all paparazzi, you know you’ve found something special.
The power of tech
Twenty years ago, this was a little visited place. A few snowmachiners made the run up the Knik River to the lake and the occasional cross-country skiers or rare cyclist followed in their track.
And when conditions were ideal – the river frozen rock solid and the snow not too deep – some of the more adventurous off-road, four-by-four drivers took a shot at the adventure.
Then technology began to change things.
Snowmchines got ever better, and almost two decades ago a Minnesota-based company named Surly rolled out an odd-looking, two-wheeler it called the Pugsley.
“The Pugsley sure got a lot of looks when it first came out, and rightfully so,” a company history now recounts. “Prior to 2004, fat tire bikes were custom-made frames for a fringe group that was experimenting with pushing the limits of winter and other extreme terrain riding.”
That “fringe group,” as Surly describes it, was largely Alaska based although the design contributions of Southwest desert rider Ray Molina cannot be ignored.
Molina in the mid-1990s read a story about John Stamstad, a now Mountain Bike Hall of Famer and the then dominate force in the Iditasport bike race, the cycling version of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Like everyone in then Iditasport (now the Iditarod Trail Invitational) in those days, Stamstad was riding a standard mountain bike with the widest rims then available fitted with knobby, three-inch wider tires off which the outer knobs often needed to be cut to make them fit in the then standard mountain bike frame.
The rims were limited-edition, 44-mm wide “Snowcats” produced for All Weather Sports in Fairbanks and designed by Fairbanks bike mechanic Simon Rakower who’d seen standard rims welded together for an experimental Iditasport bike and realized there was a better way.
The Snowcat was the first real step on the journey to the fat bikes of today. Step two came from Molina who cut some of the standard bike tires of the day in half and sewed in a new middle section to create a four- to five-inch wide tired he called the Raggedy Ann.
He then built a bike to fit those tires, contracted for the manufacture of some 80mm wide rims, and the rapid evolution of the fat bike began.
Alaskans Mark Gronewald and John Evingson, who were already welding up bike frames to fit the widest rims and tires then available, saw a Remolino Sandbike with 80mm Remolino rims at Interbike, the bike industry trade show, in Las Vegas in 1999 and immediately recognized its potential for riding the snowmachine trails of Alaska.
Gronewald, one of the handful of cyclists already sometimes riding to the Knik Glacier, made a deal with Remolino to buy his rims and tires, and then he and Evingson started welding together Alaska’s first real fat bikes.
A native Minnesotan, Evingson later turned old friends in Minnesota onto the fat-bike idea and from that sprang the Pugsley, which seems now a rather primitive contraption.
It had a heavy, steel frame. It steered a little like a tank. And it rolled on heavy, 3.8-inch tires mounted on over-built rims better suited to cliff jumping than snow riding.
“The original Pugsley was a heavyweight fighter, weighing in at around 42 pounds” is how Bike Roar defined the machine almost a decade later as fat-tire riding began to enter the mainstream thanks to lighter and better-designed fat bikes.
Today you can get an electrically assisted fat e-bike with a claimed weight of only six pounds more than that original Pugsley, and both Alaska fat-bike companies – Corvus Cycles and 9:Zero:7 – offer fat bikes in the weight range of all-mountain, full suspension bikes as well as carbon fat frames and fat wheels that allow for custom builds of fat bikes of 25 pounds or less.
Weight doesn’t really matter all that much for those who stick to riding well-packed snowmachine trails, but light weight is an advantage when the ride turns into a hike-a-bike thanks to the adventurous nature of cycling companions.
The weather still rules
Trail conditions almost wholly dictate where fatbikes can go although there is regularly a spring “crust” season when they can go almost anywhere at certain hours.
How long and how good that season is unpredictable, but at its best, it is a phenomenon to be experienced with warm, daytime temperatures softening the snow that overnight freezes into white pavement before the next day’s thaw.
The trick to fully enjoying that white pavement comes in getting out early and being done with the day’s ride just as the new thaw starts. Things tend to get ugly fast if you’re caught out as the pavement of the early day starts to trend toward slush.
When it gets warm enough, even well-packed snowmachine trails can go to mush, but they tend to last much longer into the day than untracked snow.
The trail Johnson regularly grooms to the glacier was rock hard in the 23-degree temperature at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday and barely starting to go soft in the 34-degree warmth at 4 p.m.
Some wet snow was, however, getting churned off the surface of the trail. Off the snowmachine tracks, there was no sign of a surface crust yet developing, although there was one beneath several inches of snow which helped when it came time for some hike-a-biking.
Pushing through ankle to lower shin-deep snow isn’t so bad. When it gets near mid-shin deep or deeper, it’s another story. The same can be said of what happens if someone gets caught out at the far end of the nine miles of trail from the lake’s edge to the parking lot at Knik Glacier Tours, a company specializing in summer tours to the glacier via 6X6 trucks and riverboats.
Nine miles can turn into a long, long way if the trail goes bad. There are conditions that must be weighed here, but they are worth it.
“You will be awestruck by the sheer size of the Knik Glacier – six miles across (and) 28-miles long,” Glacier Tours says. The awestruck applies even more in winter when you can get closer to the glacier with less risk of calving ice than in summer.
The risk of that ice should not be ignored, however, no matter the season. It can calve summer or winter, and some of the massive icebergs frozen in the lake have been known to move around in winter, creating dangerously thin ice near their edges.
For those who don’t cycle or simply aren’t fit enough for a 20-mile or better roundtrip ride, Johnson offers snowmobile tours to the glacier, but the way to really, truly experience the country fully is to get on a bike and immerse yourself in it.
For those uncomfortable with going it alone in wild Alaska, where any travel involves some risk, Alaska Bike Adventures offers guided fat-bike trips to the glacier.
“The riding is not technical,” the company says, “however it could be a long day on the saddle riding various types of snow conditions. You can average anything from 5 mph to 13 mph, depending on snow and wind conditions.”
That average speed can, depending on who you are traveling with and where they decide to go, easily fall below 5 mph. At worst, it can drop below a 3 mph walking speed to slide into the trudging zone.
And if the conditions are such to encourage explorations beyond the lake, as they were Saturday, the long day in the saddle can turn into a really long day in the saddle.
A trail usually pinched off by glacial ice at the southern end of the lake is now open into what is described as “The Gorge” or the “Gorge of Famous Lake George, Self-Emptying Lake.”
The Gorge was once famous for its annual disappearance under water, and the floods that later followed.
“At the time of its designation (as a National Natural Landmark), Lake George was the largest glacier-dammed lake and one of the most consistent self-dumping lakes in North America,” according to the National Park Service. “The lake emptied almost annually for 49 years before 1967.
“When the lake outlet was blocked by the Knik Glacier, the lake swelled with water until summer when the dam broke and the water dumped in a spectacular torrent into the Knik River.”
It has been years since that glacial damming took place, and in summer a river now flows from Inner Lake George beside a wall of towering and sketchy ice to reach the miles long lake at the glacier’s face.
A 28-year-old Italian tourist was crushed to death by falling ice in The Gorge in March 2015. Alexander Hellweger had been on a week-long, ski vacation in Alaska with friends from Italy and Belgium when he unfortunately joined a helicopter visit to the attraction that claimed his life.
The year 2015 was then on its way to being the second warmest in the regional weather record, and warm weather makes for unstable ice, which is not to suggest that cold weather guarantees stability.
It does, however, increase the odds. So we made a try at pedaling to Inner Lake George.
We made it to within a mile or two of the Inner Lake before encountering a patch of new ice of indeterminate thickness and nature. It could have been thin ice over flowing water or thicker ice over overflow, but with the day getting late anyway, we decided against trying to determine which and retreated.
Water in Alaska can be just as dangerous in the frozen season as in the warm season, and in summer it is known for killing a lot of people. The state leads the nation in drowning deaths per capita, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
We turned around and rode out into a stiff headwind confident there would be yet other opportunities. The National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center is saying there is a 50 percent or better chance that temperatures will be below normal for this part of Alaska through April 10.
And even the normals for the Anchorage area for late March and early April are conducive to fat-bike adventuring. Average, nighttime lows fall to below freezing through April 21 even as daily highs climb into the upper 40s.
Exactly how those temperatures interact with the snow depends a lot on the cloud cover and the dewpoint. Snow will refreeze at air temperatures well above 32 degrees if the dewpoint is significantly below that temperature.
The best crust, meanwhile, forms when the days are sunny and warm enough to really soften up the snows, but the nights clear and cold enough to force it to consolidate once again.
When these conditions are ideal, the cycling in the place to visit B4UDIE can only be desrbied as 2DIE4.