Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Different Ride Report

This past Friday, I took a group ride with several close friends.  This trip was a little different for me for a couple of reasons.  First, I almost always ride alone.  I'm not anti-social; I just never seem to hook up with others to ride together, except for maybe once or twice with my wife, and once when I was following a group of riders home from Wasilla at about 11:00 at night (we were worried about moose on the highway, and the lead vehicle was a van, lol).  Second, I didn't take the V-Strom...I took my mountain bike, a Diamondback Outlook that I've had for five years or so, and that has been seriously neglected since buying the Suzuki :)

Anyway, Friday morning, five of us packed up our gear and bikes, piled into two trucks, and departed Anchorage for Eklutna Lake, destination: Serenity Falls, roughly thirteen miles around to the far side of the lake.

The view towards the far side of the
lake, from about a mile in.
I had packed lightly, since this was only an overnight trip, and I had just cleaned and lubed the bike the previous weekend, so despite the fact that two of the five of us were about half my age :) the first mile passed easily enough. However, by mile five  I was starting to feel my lack of recent exercise.  Fortunately, we stopped for a breather at a bridge over one of several small creeks that feed into the lake.

Eric snaps a few photos with his iPhone while I'm doing
the same with my Android
And Pat catches up with us for a breather at the bridge
While all of us pulled ahead from time to time, or dropped to the end of the group as we shed layers, grabbed a snack, etc., I was keeping pretty much in the middle of the group most of the time.  Nevertheless, Nate, one of the two twenty-somethings (well, technically Joel is a couple of weeks shy of being a twenty-something) was doing his best to remind me that my twenties were more than just a few years ago :)  He was absolutely a machine, pulling ahead of the rest of us, whether we were going uphill or down, and staying in the lead more often than not.

Shortly after resting at the bridge, we ran into one of the toughest spots of the ride: about a half mile of snow-covered trail.  Yes, Virginia, it's April 29th, and yes, that's still a lot of snow on the ground.  At one point, the snow and ice pack had cracked open like a crevasse on a glacier.  No joke, the crevasse had to be at least three feet deep!  Several of us, myself included, tried to bike across the snow.  I've done it before, but not with a day pack filled with over three quarts of water, a sleeping bag, a Coleman stove and food.  All of us were just a bit too top heavy to balance our bikes on the soft, slush-over-ice snowpack, and we ended up walking most of the way.  I think three of us -- maybe all of us -- bought it at least once trying to ride across the snow.  Obviously, I was the slowest learner, because I must have dropped my bike on the snow three or four times as the front tire tried to go one way, the rear tire tried to go another, and I tried to keep going straight.

Bold Airstrip is located at mile eight, on the far shore of the lake.  Next to the airstrip is a small cabin that you can rent from the state park, and by the time we got that far, I was ready to drop my gear there and call it good.  Lucky for me, however, Eric dug out his GPS and spent fifteen or twenty minutes searching for a geocache, which he found, so I got a chance to snarf down another Cliff Bar and recuperate for the final four mile ride.  By the time I got back to my bike, Nate and Eric were already tiny dots on the trail, so I resumed by usual position in the middle of the pack, with Pat and Joel right on my heels.

Other than the ice pack just before reaching Bold Airstrip, most of the preceding eight miles had been pretty easy riding, with slight up- and down-hill sections surrounded by alpine forest.  Spring in Alaska is my favorite time of year, with the promise of an entire summer stretching out before you.  Everywhere you look, snow is melting, the grass is beginning to green and the trees began popping out buds as the sun begins to invite life back into the world.  Best of all, the air is filled with a clean, soapy smell from the tree buds on the alders, willows and cottonwoods that share the woodlands with spruce and larch trees.  At the airstrip, however, things changed, as the forest had apparently been ravaged by fire some time in the fairly recent past.  Blackened husks of trees stood out against the green mountains on each side of the valley, looking like charred skeletons with their empty branches clawing at the sky.  Yet even here, life was returning, claiming its stake on the fire-scarred forest.  Already there were small willow and alder saplings, and  I'd wager that soon mature willows and alders will obscure all evidence of the fire.

The view from the bridge...

...and the view OF the bridge.  That's Pat
in the blue sweatshirt and white cap,
Eric next to him and Pat's son Joel on
the opposite side of the bridge.
Near mile ten, we stopped to search for another geocache at yet another bridge spanning a happily bubbling creek.  All of us were tired and sore by this point, and we were grateful to drop our packs and lean over the bridge railing to watch the water go by.  We knew there were only another two miles to go, so eventually we picked up the packs again, hobbled back on the mountain bikes and started the final push to the Serenity Falls cabin.  I mentioned to Pat that I was really missing my V-Strom at this point.  "It wouldn't be worth doing if it was easy," he laughed.  Yep, I can't argue with that.

Since Bold Airstrip, the trail had grown more and more rocky.  It was still plenty wide enough for a car to drive, but whereas the lakeside trail was a smooth, packed gravel trail, the stretch between Bold and Serenity Falls was dirt with fist-sized boulders.  As I commented to someone -- I don't remember who, exactly -- in the years since I had started riding motorcycles, my *bicycle* seat seemed to have become more firm while *my* seat had become less so :)  Since my Diamonback only has a suspension on the front forks, I finally had to stop to let some air out of my tires to cushion the ride a bit.  I don't know if it truly helped, but it at least seemed to take some of the edge off the ride.

Finally, we reached the Serenity Falls hut, and we were pleasantly surprised when we got there.  I've stayed in Forest Service/State Park cabins before, but Serenity Falls is much, much nicer than any of the other cabins I've ever stayed in.  The entire south-facing side of the cabin is covered in windows, showing off the falls and the Eklutna Glacier.  The hut sleeps up to thirteen people, including three double-bunks.  Half of the hut (the north side) is bunks.  A wall separates the sleeping area from the main room, which is equipped with two wooden tables, two stainless steel counter tops for preparing food and a large wood stove.  During the day, the south facing windows do a great job of keeping the hut warm; by night, the wood stove keeps the hut toasty.  Once we arrived in the hut and dropped our packs, everyone immediately started preparing food.  While everyone else was rehydrating freeze dried food or heating an MRE, I feasted on a monster-sized, double-cheese hamburger that I had grilled on my barbecue the night before.  It had to be close to a half-pound of hamburger meat, and right then, there was no finer meal to be had anywhere on earth.  What is it about camping that makes everything taste so GOOD?

Left to right, Eric, Joel and Pat at one of the tables at
Serenity Falls.
After eating our fill, we set about gathering firewood to keep the wood stove fueled throughout the night, and talking about whatever came to mind.  Night came far too quickly and soon, we crawled into our bunks, warm, well-fed and exhausted from the ride in.

The next morning, Pat and Eric hiked a little further up the trail towards the Eklutna Glacier while Joel, Nate and I started packing and cleaning up for the ride back home.  Too soon, we were ready to go.  The ride back was uneventful, and after two or three hours, we were back at the parking lot, where I had only three things on my mind: a Quarter-Pounder with cheese, a Mocha Frappe and a shower :)  Normally, I'm not one for fast food, but after biking 27 miles round trip with a 40-50 pound pack (I didn't bother to weigh it), I was craving the calories to restock my depleted reserves.

While I've spent many, many weekends at Eklutna Lake in the twenty-some-odd years I've lived in Alaska, this is the first time I've ever gone back to Serenity Falls.  I can guarantee it won't be the last.  Even though it was still too early for spring to have truly arrived at 1200 feet of altitude, this was a breathtakingly beautiful place to spend a weekend.  I can't imagine how gorgeous it must be when the trees are displaying all their glory and the falls -- cascades of blue ice this time of year -- are crashing down the mountainsides into the valley below.  Oh yes, I'll be back to Serenity Falls again.

Information on Serenity Falls and other Eklutna public-use cabins available at

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