6.3-6.8.2008 Biking Denali Nat’l Park . . . road to river to trail

It’s been an odd spring. I have been craving some sort of trip, especially after last spring was so amazing between the Powell Glacier, skiing Denali, and packrafting off the Harding Icefield (never wrote that one up, but ask me about it sometime if you want to hear a good adventure story!). I am not really ready to be done skiing this year, but frankly our spring has been pretty shitty weather-wise, so it seemed like a change of seasons wasn’t a horrible idea. Eric told me of his plan to bike into Denali, float the Toklat, and then bike the Stampede. My thought was that this trip would include the adventure/excitement/exertion that I was craving . . . In other words, we discussed before the trip that it would more-than-likely be “Type B” fun (otherwise known as retrospective fun) and we acknowledged that there were a lot of unknowns. The great thing about a trip like this one is that your only choice is to go find out, and to have faith that you’ll find the way. There is certainly an appeal in not knowing. From the intensive permit process and talking to folks, we had gathered that the Toklat was probably floatable, the Stampede trail would likely be “brushy” until the Sushana River, and that it would be more of a trail (but likely super muddy) from there. So, off we went . . .

My beautiful bike before leaving civilization . . . I was surprised at how well the bike carried the weight and how pleasant the riding was

Eric on the road near the Sanctuary River . . .

Dylan and I on the road . . . the ride was 56 miles and took us through some pretty incredible areas. True to form, I didn’t ask a lot of questions about the terrain, nor have I been in the park since I was a kid, so the passes and elevation changes were a surprise. I love how my brain works: ignorance is totally bliss.

But those who know me know that I love climbing and would actually prefer a hilly road to a flat one most of the time, so I was pretty psyched on the ride! This is the road on the way up Polychrome Pass

At the top . .

From there, we rode down to the Toklat River bridge. We had intended to ride in and float a ways, but the day got away from us and we decided we’d start floating the next day. The park is riddled with rules, so we had to get 0.5 miles from the road . . . conveniently, the gravel bar turned out to be great riding – who knew

We camped out of sight and actually slept pretty well, even though it was pelting rain outside and thoughts of miserable floating were coursing through our brains. We had decided heroism was unnecessary and wouldn’t have had a problem heading back to the road if it was torrential. Thankfully, the morning dawned bluebird and we were re-inspired

We headed over to the main channel, inflated boats, and completed the first pass at packing mountain bikes on them . . . it took me a few iterations to get it right, but it was worth stopping to fix it, for sure . . . this was the first time for all of us with the raft/bike combo.


Eric ready to see what’s ahead . . .

The scenery did not suck.

Down the river we went . . . it was decent floating, although the low volume and heavy rafts made for a lot of in-and-out to get over the shallow spots. These rafts are incredibly durable, as evidenced by the number of times we scooted over rocks . . .

Me with Mt. Sheldon behind . . . always the skier, I took a mental note of those coolies! Holy happy place!!!

Breakup is pretty complete, but there was still ice along the river . . . thankfully none of it was obstructing the river!
Thinking that the river would be mellow and we already had tons of weight, we opted not to bring drysuits . . . with the cool weather, impending rain, and constant river exposure for gravel bars, this equated to spending some time on shore running in circles (quite literally) to warm up.

When we finally reached the confluence with the Toklat East Fork, we got out and built a huge fire which was pretty amazing. Our spirits had risen considerably in the last hour or so as the river volume increased substantially and amazing views of Denali developed. I have to admit, when we got out, it was appealing to stay in the river and float to the Yukon. It’s a trip to float north, and really cool to float from the Alaska Range into the interior.
Being dry and warm was amazing!

Dylan preferred a huge hunk of cookie dough to all other foods – nothing like calorie density!

The next morning, we rode 2 hours on the Toklat East Fork. This included riding shelf ice, gravel, and crossing the river about 20 times . . .


Yet another crossing . . . wet feet were a given for this whole trip pretty much.

From there, we filled up with water and entered the forest, breaking out into the tundra after a bit . . . It quickly became clear that weight would be better on our backs than our bikes. Walking over tussocks is hard since they’re fairly unsupportable. Pushing a bike over them is downright lame since you have to keep picking up the wheels in the absence of flat ground for them to roll over!

Re-packing . . .

Tussock hiking . . .

The remnants of the Stampede Trail in the distance. The trail used to be used for mining and actually went all the way to the Toklat.

The secion between the Toklat and the Sushana Rivers, however, has not seen much activity since then, as evidenced by Dylan on the “trail” . . . trading unsupportable tussocks for aldery-but-solid ground did have some appeal . .

We finally broke out on to a ridge

and were able to see more-or-less where we had to head . . . then it was a matter of just going there. This was the hard part, as the travel was not straightforward, and the Sushana looked like a ways away. The bugs were pretty bad too, and they LOVE my sweet blood! You can see the Sushana in the distance if you look carefully in this photo . . .

We finally made it to the river 10 hours after leaving the Toklat. Before beginning our XC journey we had said, “How bad can it be? 1 mph, that’s 10 hours . . . we can do that.” Ask, believe, and you shall receive!

We rode along the river for a bit and then I smelled smoke . . . sure enough, there were campers at the bus! We rounded a corner on the river and a dirt road appeared out of nowhere with people, fire, and food at the top of a small rise. What a culture shock!

I have to admit it was a little eerie being in the bus. Chris’s family had been there and started a journal with some pretty heartfelt messages in it. “Pilgrims” to the bus had written their own responses to his story and the impact on their lives. Regardless of your opinion of Chris McCandless and the book/movie, it was an interesting place and interesting energy.
We decided to camp since we were not really ready for another 8-10 hours of exertion (it was already midnight!) and the thought of late-night river crossings was fairly unappealing. The next day dawned non-rainy again, and we were off! I was mentally prepared for calf-deep mud all day and super pleasantly surprised by the great condition of the trail. It was arguably “Type A” fun . . . so much that I’d recommend this trip to someone looking for a good time

Crossing the Teklanika was another big unknown. For those who have seen/read “INTO THE WILD,” this is the river that turned Chris around. Although the low volume was a PITA on the Toklat, it meant that the Teklanika was low and pretty straightforward to cross.

From there, the trail was pretty good with a few river crossings and muddy sections. At least the muddy water was warm, when compared to the glacial streams! And, thankfully, the bugs really weren’t out yet!

The road transitioned to better and better quality. We passed a cook-camp where tourists drive jeeps to a backcountry lunch and chatted with the guy who works there. And we kept riding, knowing that we were getting close. All of a sudden, 8-mile lake popped out and we crested into big sky country. This area quickly became one of my new favorite places in Alaska.

Right after we passed the lake, we had the first mechanical failure of the trip as Eric’s pedal broke . . . thankfully he was able to ride the road with 1.5 pedals, but we were glad this didn’t happen much earlier in the trip, to say the least . . .

And then: pavement . . . wow!

From there, it was 25ish miles back to McKinley Village, burritos, and coffee. We sorta laughed when we hit the road, reflecting on how well things had gone and somewhat amazed that we didn’t “epic.” Sure, the 2-day trip had taken 4 and there was one day of fairly unfavorable travel conditions, but we had expected at least that at the outset. We also had a great time together as a group . . . I met Dylan the morning we left, and have never been in the b/c with Eric before. What’s an adventure if you know your partners already!


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  1. pcsolotto says:

    Your blog is very creative, when people read this it widens our imaginations.

  2. i’m also into those things. care to give some advice?

  3. Impressive post Kellie! Loved the story and pictures, sounds like an awesome trip, and like you were highly rewarded for throwing it out there without knowing the outcome beforehand!

  4. jamie says:

    Nice work, you are official a hammerhead in my book!

  5. wfinley says:

    I think both you & Eric need to elaborate on the pain that this trip produced. You both make it sound like a walk in the park… didn’t you like run out of food and almost starve? Didn’t you feel like you were being pursued by the ghost of Chris McCandless?

  6. Kellie says:

    We didn’t almost starve . . . it was more like a “take off those extra pounds from spring at the Sitzmark” than “what if we have to curl up in the bus and end it all with the ghost of CM.” Stop being so dramatic 😉

  7. Adam says:

    Goddamn Kellie you are my hero!

  8. Eric says:

    what the hell, update your blog already, this is like a month old. you must be having a really boring summer I guess?

  9. Anonymous says:

    The information here is great. I will invite my friends here.


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