Moose Lake, McCarthy Road

Doughnuts–alternative fuel for your next vacation?

Doughnuts–alternative fuel for your next vacation?

By Todd & Mary Logan & Dawn Groth

“Don’t tell me you rode those bicycles all the way out here!” said the folks from Atlanta.

And so began an amusing lunchtime conversation with the vacationing couple from Atlanta.  Mary, Dawn, and I were filling our stomachs, resting our legs, and enjoying a spectacular view of the Kuskulana River bridge at milepost 17 on the McCarthy road.  We had each pedaled out of our driveways in Anchorage on bikes six days before and had ridden 280 miles since leaving home.

The folks from Atlanta were enjoying their first visit to Alaska.  They were at this remote place in their rental car only because they were traveling with friends who had been up to Alaska several times before who were looking for something different – a trip to McCarthy and the Kennicott mines. We each traded a few stories of neat things we had seen or done so far, and we shared some smoked salmon.  But the couple kept returning to the idea that what we were doing was super-human and unbelievable.  They were younger than us, and lamented that they should be doing more biking themselves and leading a more active lifestyle.  They would arrive in McCarthy in a couple of hours, while it would take us another day to arrive.  We encountered them two days later in McCarthy at the McCarthy Lodge. We were on the deck eating a celebratory dinner of curried rice with local duck eggs, and up they drove up in a shuttle. We yelled to them, “Don’t tell me you drove all of the way here in your car!” Later they offered us shots; we demurred, as “nothing good ever came from a night of shots!” The theme for our trip reflected the common refrain from Anchoragites regarding the long distance to McCarthy; “McCarthy–too far to drive, but we can bike there!”

Best Transport Alternatives Odum, McGrane, Brown, & Bastianoni 1995 (Florida Policies)

This encounter with driving tourists illustrated a common misconception about bicycle travel  – that bike travel is only for super athletes and not for average people.  Subscribe to a magazine such as Adventure Cycling or Google your way to any of hundreds of bicycle travel blogs and you will quickly learn that average people do travel by bicycle . . . all the time.  And it’s not surprising.   Cycling is more efficient than any other method of travel,

Out of gas on an old homestead on the McCarthy road near the Chokosna River

and it is even 5 times more efficient than walking. If we compare the amount of calories burned in bicycling to the number of calories an automobile burns, the difference is astounding. One hundred calories can power a cyclist for three miles, but it would only power a car 280 feet (85 meters)!

In the lower-energy world of the future, cycling will play an ever-increasing role in both transportation and leisure travel.  There are already over a billion bicycles on the planet today, and bicycles are currently the major form of transportation in many parts of the world.  For leisure travel, Americans could learn much from Europeans.  During our 2-week ride we met only two other groups of touring cyclists, and those bikers were all from Germany.  And while we considered our ride to be quite ambitious – 550 miles over two weeks – the touring cyclists we met were on rides two or three times the scale of ours.

The idea of getting a group of friends together, hopping on bikes, and pedaling around a place as big and wild as Alaska over a month was not a great stretch of the imagination for the cycling-centric Europeans.  It shouldn’t be for Americans either. Americans have been conditioned to think that bikes are toys for children, that bikes are recreation rather than useful tools, or that bikes represent low status unless they are used for competitive racing, using expensive bicycles and special spandex clothes and bike shoes.

Finishing the trip with more socks than you started with–no spandex or bike cleats here!

Not only is bicycle travel efficient, it is inexpensive and fun!  And bike touring is an independent way to travel. Alaska suffers from the bane of industrial tourism; tourists are funneled into corporate restaurants, hotels, and venues, making it harder for local tourism businesses to survive and thrive. Touring on bikes supports relocalization.

Three themes emerged as we pondered how our trip was different on a bike than if we’d done it in a car:  (1) you see and experience a lot more when you are moving slowly; (2) people really want to talk to you when you are traveling by bicycle; and (3) the challenges you face build a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment.

You see more when you are moving slowly

Big bikes fascinate Todd @ Pinnacle Mtn. Cafe

On our gear-laden bikes, we averaged about 45 miles a day.  But we saw – really saw – more dramatic vistas, heard more rushing streams and singing birds, and stopped at more quirky places than most drivers would experience when traveling ten times that far.  We also experienced things that drivers almost never notice – the assist of a pleasing tailwind or the energy-burning slow grind up a particularly steep hill.  We learned to never ask road condition advice from drivers.  For example, we asked a park ranger about taking the gravel “Old Edgerton Highway” as an alternative route one day.  We were urged to avoid it because it was winding and rough.  We took it anyway, and found it to be the best part of

Hydro-powered low energy fish wheels on the Copper (Ahtna) River at Chitina

the ride thus far.  It was a great shortcut, avoided some huge climbs, and we were passed by two cars as we rode its twelve miles.  We were also warned about the 60-mile gravel McCarthy road.  It was described as rough, washed out, pot-holed, spike-ridden, tedious, boring, and even dangerous.  It may be a few of those things in a car, but its 120 round-trip miles were some of the easiest riding of our entire trip.

People really want to talk to you when you travel by bike

http://findsubstance.com/2009/08/07/substance-rolling-coffee-thursday-august-13th/

We both saw and heard the pick-up as it slowly approached us from behind.  “You want a doughnut?” a voice called out.  Then two hands holding a Hostess donut box sprang from the passenger window as we pedaled along at an easy pace.  Of course we stopped and partook.  Two young state DOT workers were out doing survey work on road culverts.  It was clear that they would rather be doing exactly what we were doing.  They got all the details of what we’d already done and what was yet to be done.  They carefully inspected our bikes and gear for future reference.  This type of interaction, and hospitality, happened again and again over the two-week ride.  We think people liked to talk to us for two reasons.  First, we looked interesting.   Out of the ordinary.  Adventurous.  Secondly, to some we appeared vulnerable.  We were not ensconced in a several ton box of glass, plastic, and steel.  We were exposed to the weather, bears, mosquitos, and vehicle traffic.

Dawn and Todd @ Tok Thai at the Hub, best food in Glennallen

We couldn’t just press on a gas pedal to overcome a hill or headwind.  And surely we were lacking the type of food and drink often carried in boxes and coolers in motor vehicles.  We shared lots of fun stories with these more traditional travelers.  We were sought out again and again.  And our conversations were not one-sided.  Every traveler had an interesting story to tell. We also spent one night indoors after a very rainy day on the McCarthy Road

Little Drifter at Circle F Ranch http://alaskayaks.com/

with a lovely couple at the Alaska Halfway House B&B in their Halfway Done Bunkhouse, and we shared our stories there as well.  When we saw a field full of Yaks on the Edgerton Highway, we stopped to investigate, and had a fascinating discussion with the owners of Circle F Ranch, while Little Drifter licked our sweaty thighs with his rough tongue, and we chatted about yak fiber, yak meat, and sustainability policies for Alaska.  The most common farewell from folks we talked to was the concerned advice to “Be Safe!”

Bike touring builds a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment

Source unknown?

We started the trip as good friends, and ended as great friends.  We got to know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and senses of humor.  We shared some glorious times and some real challenges.  We traveled and camped in some pretty wild places, and thus were often a community of three; bike touring opens up a lot of novel options for places to camp.  We helped each other and looked out for each other.  And we had a lot of fun.

Never done a bicycle tour?  You should try it!  While some people “go big” right off the bat, a saner route is to apply the permaculture principle of starting small and slow.  Check out what your local bike clubs are up to.  Ask a friend who might have experience or want to go.  A super resource for getting started in Adventure Cycling’s “Bike Overnights” website: http://www.bikeovernights.org/.  They have hundreds of reader-submitted short trip ideas, gear checklists, and more.

Slow travel is about quality rather than quantity.  And rough travel makes you appreciate the comforts of home–commodes, stoves, and hot showers!  Welcome to the lower energy world!

Wanderers on the McCarthy Road in Alaska
  • chrissouthall

    Lovely article, thanks
    Chris

  • http://www.bikegdr.blogspot.com Ane

    The title of your article caught my attention since my husband is currently biking across Alaska & British Columbia on his way to Roosville, Montanta. I think his fuel has been rice, beans, oatmeal and coffee but I know he would enjoy a doughnut if someone offered it. Thanks for pointing out that average people can do exceptional bike trips and have all the great rewards of slower travel and time to talk to interesting people.

  • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ Admin

    Thanks, Chris! And Ane, I hope your husband gets some doughnuts. His trip is quite the undertaking. Tell him that he’s done the hard part; that bit from Deadhorse to Fairbanks on the haul road is not for the faint of heart; 47K vertical feet of soft gravel road which follows the pipeline, with very little attention to contours. My husband did it with a group (bobs, not panniers) several years ago and he finally bailed with a friend whose bike kept blowing up in protest. I opted out of that one when I heard the number 47,000!

    http://www.bikegdr.blogspot.com/ (Ane’s husband Joel’s blog)

    It looks as though Joel is having fun; my husband is now talking about biking the Alcan since I didn’t bite on the bike across America idea. Tell Joel that the Denali Highway is awesome if he wants views instead of coming to see Los Anchorage (take a left at Cantwell instead of coming south towards Anchorage).

    Mary

    • http://www.bikegdr.blogspot.com Ane

      Thanks for all the good information and well wishes. Joel did take the Denali Highway and is now on the Tok Cutoff. I don’t think he has found any doughnuts but he was happy to find a $5 breakfast at the Red Eagle Lodge. He is really enjoying biking through Alaska and the challenges it brings.

      • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ Admin

        Alaska has challenges; my husband continues his search for the perfect rain jacket. When it rains all day in Alaska, staying dry is essential. Joel looks as though he is having fun. We will have to check out the Red Eagle Lodge.

  • http://jjpeterberger.wordpress.com/ Janet

    Awesome post! It all rings true. I especially agreed with not taking advice from automobile drivers too seriously. Many a good ride has come from going down roads we were advised against. Thanks for the post.

    • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ Admin

      The older roads geared towards carriage and train were much more understanding of lower energy needs. Some of the new roads were built by engineers buoyed by all sorts of earth-moving equipment and attitudes about the gas pedal. They’re straight as an arrow and ignorant of contours. Thanks, Janet!

  • Susan Atzman

    What a great excuse to eat doughnuts. Sounds like a great trip with plenty of opportunities to commune with natural forces. It is inspiring to read your stories. Long distance bike travel is in my future.

    • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ Admin

      http://travellingtwo.com/5492

      Here’s a nice primer (free PDF) on bike touring basics, Susan. Having a sturdy bike that can carry weight is helpful.

      Mary

  • Mandy

    What a wonderful trip! You have inspired me to start planning for next summer, starting from Palmer. I lived in Valdez for years, and had always meant to ride from there to the Valley, just never got around to it. You know, Alaskans always want to take their vacations Outside! Also would like to ride and fish the Denali Highway. Lots of places here to have great bike tours, so little time…

    • Todd Logan

      A ride from Palmer to Valdez, with or without a side trip to McCarthy, would be great. Consider finishing the loop via the ferry to Whittier then back home by way of the Seward and Glenn Highways. I learned long ago that you have time for trips like this only if you MAKE the time. Starting and finishing a bike trip from your driveway also really simplifies things and provides great flexibility in your itinerary. Make it happen! Final suggestion – Buy the Milepost and bring the applicable pages for your ride. Knowing in advance where every restaurant and store is located lets you really minimize the amount of food you need to carry. And while we did a lot of wild camping, knowing where all the developed campgrounds were helped us find that occasional hot shower! Good luck!

      • Mandy

        Yes, I agree about the importance of knowing about what support there is out there. My husband and I rode 850 miles of the 2400 from Lake Itasca along the Mississippi to Pilot Point on the Gulf of Mexico last fall, using the book “Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail” by Bob Robinson. Great guide, great ride, we will finish the entire route within the next couple of years I hope.

  • http://prosperouswaydown.com/ Admin

    On making the time, I want to add this link from Energy Bulletin on busyness that includes the most emailed article of the week from the NYT that apparently struck a nerve with Americans: http://energybulletin.net/stories/2012-07-01/busy-busy-busy-july-1

    We’re all feeling it; the loss of control and increasing list of obligations inherent in our overly complex work bureaucracies are mirrored in our daily lives. We prefer to add rather than remove, in a characteristic response to positive feedback loops. My old solution for getting mired down was to move every 5 years, as a convenient form of automatic boundary setting. But we’ve settled now, so I need to work actively at creating more careful boundaries around personal space that allows me control. After a lifetime of having my life dictated by work and family roles, my most cherished belonging at this point in my life (56 y/o) is the ability to choose what I will and will not do. Recognition of our boundaries and where the private and the corporate diverge will be increasingly important as we try to juggle living in two cultures; empire and descent.

    Mary

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