482km/ 300 miles cycling, 240km/ 150 miles paddling in 16 days.
The expedition was simple: Ride as much iconic single track as we could find, paddle some big ass rivers to complete one big loop covering as much of cold & wet, yet beautiful, Alaska as possible.
AK is no joke, it’s wild, remote and incredibly difficult to access in the event of an emergency, hence the reason to spend so much time preparing for the Expedition and to plan exactly what we were after. So, the theme was set; RAIN........
Day 13 60km/ 37 Miles Tiekele to Baird Camp.
The morning rain ritual continued, it was certainly no longer surprising. The wind had kicked up and we were facing another strong head wind a sign it was going to be a long day. We started paddling taking moments to stare up at the mountains, take in the glaciers and beautiful waterfalls we passed and I picked out lines that would be amazing running, with the only trouble being the impenetrable bush and undergrowth AK has.
A short time after we started we realised Liz was not really getting very far with the headwind resistance, so we tied our rafts together and paddled along the slow-moving river, this was the only way to stop her from literally blowing backwards in certain stretches of river. We stopped often in the morning thanks to me choosing the wrong braids to paddle down. Eventually they would run out of water and we’d have to drag our boats across an embankment or two to find the river again.
There were old fish wheels washed up on banks and silt everywhere. The river levels had dropped and were continuing to drop every day we were out. Both the Chitina and Copper Rivers are glacier fed rivers, meaning because it was late fall the glaciers were not melting a great deal, this in turn meant we were running out of water. The river delta can be up to 11km wide in sections so when the water recedes leaving it “Braided“. The good news from this was the fishing boats had stopped running up and down the river :)
The heavens opened through the day and we were followed by a consistent down pour all day. I continued to tow Liz and thankfully she continued to paddle. Relief, the sun came out briefly bringing a rainbow so we took this as a sign to have lunch. We beached ourselves on a small sand bar and tucked into our wraps. We heard a plane and looked high in the sky to see the white Cessna flying by again.
We continued on our way down the river enjoying the brief glimpses of sunshine between the deluges of rain. We had paddled for over 7 hours when we rounded the bend of our campsite, another site marked by the rafting guides for us. Along with the pounding rain the temperature had dropped and it was pretty damn cold. We managed to beach on the downstream side of a river flowing out and start the hunt for a camp.
The “beach“ was a mud pit. There was nowhere clear that we could set up so it was looking like we were going to have to run the final rapids today on tired and sore bodies. We had another scout around but could barely see for the rain. We spotted on the other side of the river what turned out to be Baird Fishing Camp. A native fisheries camp.
Damn, we had to get back in the boats and paddle through an enormous eddy to get to the other side with our exhausted arms and shoulders. We emptied our bodies tanks and gave it our 100%, paddling as hard as we could…. but we missed it. We were paddling across the river watching the village disappear. Eventually we landed on the beach on the other side and dragged our boats back up to the take out point ( a take out point is an area that allows you to drag your boat out of the water)
To our surprise the camp had closed up for the season and all the huts were empty and closed. There were beds in them all and a big storage shed with boats in them. The best part was the sun decided to finally come out (it’s the small moments that can make the day!). We hung all our things (including a sopping wet tent) in the storage shed to dry overnight and Liz found the best cabin and started preparing dinner and filtering water and we mulled over the adventures of the last 3 days. The scenery really is mind blowing, every turn is beautiful and shows you a different aspect of AK. As the sun was setting Baird glacier finally came into view back on the other side of the river and we tucked into our sleeping bags full and content, comfortably sleeping inside. Tomorrow will be the last day on the river.
Day 14 27km/17 Miles paddle 12 Miles ride
Another restful night thanks to being in some sweet accommodation but both of our bodies are feeling the effects of paddling today, my shoulders and arms were so tired. The sun was shining this morning and there was even a rainbow to send us on our way as we made an early start, happy our gear had dried out overnight. Today we had one more set of infamous rapids to negotiate.
We paddled into the next bumpy part of water but the boats did a lot of the work for us. The rainbow had turned into a double rainbow behind us and I think most stunning scenery of the entire trip surrounded us. There were 2 glaciers, huge waterfalls and beautiful mountain peaks surrounding , it felt like we had this whole amazing place to ourselves, we hadn’t seen another person in 4 days, it really was perfect.
We could hear the rapids approaching and we had already decided to scout them before running them, even after reading a few reports suggesting it was more dangerous to scout than just run them because of the bears. We approached the bank making as much noise as we could. Although my loud is apparently not loud according to some ;)
I took one step on land and all I could see was bear prints. I am not kidding the ground was covered. Bear shit (some of it still steaming!) and bear tracks everywhere, I mean BIG tracks. We grabbed our bear spray and headed over the rocks to get a better view of the rapids.
It was unnerving to say the least. We continued to sing loudly and make as much noise as possible as we selected the route through the rapids. We got back to the boats pretty damn quickly and pushed off without seeing a single bear (thankfully). I went through the rapids first followed by Liz and we didn’t run into any problems.
That was it, we were into the home straight. We entered “Miles Lake“ which is where the ice floe from Miles glacier slowly makes it’s way out to sea. INCREDIBLE paddling through ice floe and mini ice bergs, it was extrodinary. Definitely one of the best things I have ever done. Its so cool to paddle next to a huge piece of ice and just take it all in. Every piece is so unique, the shapes and colours are all different. We also had a herd of seals bob up and swim along with us for about half an hour. They are such funny and inquisitive little animals. It was really fun to have them bobbing up and down right next to us.
There was a deeper channel to follow but it was nearly impossible to pick them out because it all looked the same. I bottomed out, literally, my butt hit the silt through my raft and I was stuck, bogged, not moving, going nowhere! I tried to free myself a few times with my paddle then decided I was burning way too much energy so I got out and walked. Even with the dry suit on the water was freezing. It was shin deep and I would occasionally sink down to my knees. I would get back in my raft and take 2 or 3 paddle strokes before getting bogged again. Liz being lighter managed to get a bit further than me but in the end, she had to get out and walk as well. We started heading for the major ice floe figuring it was deeper because the ice was managing to maneuver it’s ways down the river.
This whole time we could see Million Dollar Bridge, our possible end. It took us 3 hours to go maybe 4 km. Eventually we found deeper water and paddled to the bridge where we took the boats out and went up to the view point for our now very late lunch. We sat staring at Childs Glacier right next to us and debated trying to paddle to our original planned take out 36 Mile Bridge.
After some deliberation and not wanting to drag our boats, or ourselves, through who knows how much silt we decided we were done and would ride to the washed out 36 Mile Bridge and work it out from there. We unloaded the rafts and awkwardly attached all our gear to our bikes.
This was always going to take some ingenuity because there was so much gear. It took us 2 hours to get it all on the bikes and get ridding. Luckily we had the aeropress handy for an extra cup of coffee. It was so nice to get the legs spinning again after having 4 days sitting in the rafts. Our bikes were well loaded and managed to carry: Kokopelli Nirvana packraft, 4 piece paddle, PFD, Dry suit, Repair kit, Tent, Sleeping bag, Food, Sleeping pad, Clothes, Stove, Fuel, and other odds and ends…..
Bikes fully loaded with Million dollar bridge in the background...
There was bear shit everywhere on the road. It was a little unnerving because the Alder trees were so thick on both sides of the road you could only see maybe 1 foot into them, so if there was a bear it would be stepping onto the road as soon as you could see it. We got cruising along at a reasonable pace because we were on a part of the old railway, so it was flat and compact.
After only 19km we arrived at the washed out 36 Mile Bridge. We totally miss judged it thinking we had another 30+ km until we got here. It turned out we were on the wrong side and there was absolutely no way of crossing. There were 2 mini vans parked on our side and what appeared to be an airboat on the other. We decided to camp at the vans and asses our options.
Both vans were open and in the back there was a shotgun and a HUGE revolver, I guess they had them for the bears. We decided that it looked like some sort of tour operation that used the airboat to ferry people back and forth from one side to the other. After dinner we loaded all of our stuff into one of the vans re-assessed the river and called it a night leaving the final decision for the morning.
Day 15 Air boat 58km/ 36 Mile ride to Cordova
Relaxing against the van we sat quietly weighing up our options over breakfast. The river was moving too fast with to much debris for us to get across in time. The options were; ride back to Million Dollar Bridge load everything onto the boats again, float the river and take out at the 36 Mile Bridge, or sit and wait in hope for tourists to need a ride across, but knowing that it was the end of the tourist season this may not happen at all.
We decided we would give them until 10am and if they didn`t show we’d start our ride back. Luckily the rain had held off so it wasn’t a bad morning for hanging about. Then it happened …. The airboat engine started right on 10. WOOOOOOOOO HOOOOOOO
The driver came across and I met him on shore. The look on his face was priceless, remember the only way to get here is either paddle or ahhh paddle. I told him how we had messed up with our take out and was there any chance of a lift back across??? “Well of course jump on in“. Alaskan hospitality is some of the most friendly I have ever come across, they treat everyone like family, it’s so great to see in this world :)
We were stoked not only did we get a free ride, but it was on a twin-engine swamp boat, another one of my must do’s in AK.
Then it was onto the final 36 Mile ride into Cordova. Wow the final leg. To say we were excited is an understatement. We stopped and talked to fish and game officers on the way in, moose hunt season had just opened. They recommended a place called Baja Taco for a feed in town, we knew where we were headed!
We cruised most of the way into Cordova, excited for burrito’s and beer. Liz had spoken to one of the people who was going out on the airboat and it turned out her son owned a fishing boat in Cordova and she offered us a bunk to sleep in for the night on his boat. We arrived into Cordova, another one of Alaska’s beautiful fishing towns which apparently has insane winter skiing, and promptly found Baja Taco.
After a feed and beer we went to the harbour master’s office and paid to have a much-needed hot shower, unfortunately, mine was cold but such is life. We were told there was a major storm headed our way so we went and found the boat, loaded our bikes on the deck and hung out until the son came by. After a visit from him to make sure everything was ok we went into town for dinner and some more beers.
We went to the Reluctant Fisherman where the food was sensational. Watching the storm roll in from the comfort of a cozy restaurant, we were pretty happy knowing we had a roof over our heads for the night. We meandered back to the boat in the pouring rain and wind, boarded our boat and were gently rocked and rolled to sleep.
Day 16 Ferry - Hitchike to Anchorage
A 3:30am alarm was rough but it had to happen as the ferry leaves at 5am. The 2km roll down in the rain was fresh but a nice wake up call. We grabbed our tickets, boarded the ferry, found a nice place at the bow and got comfortable. Liz tried to sleep on the floor for a while and I sipped on my coffee and read my book I picked up from the harbour masters the day before.
The sunrise was spectacular over the sound. We steamed past the entry to Valdez and onward to Whittier. This completed the loop. We arrived in Whittier and guess what… It was raining…. We raced off the ferry in the hopes to beat all the cars to the tunnel thinking it would be our best chance of a lift, we arrived just in time.
We rode straight up to the cargo van we had seen go past us and tapped on the window. Of course Alaskan hospitality prevailed and we were given a lift. It turned out we got a lift with the owners of the Reluctant Fisherman. They were such nice people and offered a ride all the way to Anchorage, saving us riding the worst part of the Seward Highway.
They dropped us in Anchorage where we had set out from 16 days ago. We rolled in that last part so excited to have completed this epic epic expedition. Pushing through the many times we could have quit. ………..
Remember, if You can dream it YOU can achieve it.
A big shout out to all the people who helped us achieve this dream..
I am an ultra runner, Mountain biker, Packrafter, Climber, Ironman, Endurance Athlete