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Our best day started really bad. It started with rain all night and the night before, us soaked from three hours in a temperate rain forest – both its old growth form and its scabby, hellish clear-cut 10-year old regrowth form – followed by a chilly crossing of a misty glacial stream called the White River.

“Oh man! I forgot my pearl snap shirt at camp!” complained Jebs, just as we were all about to ride off in the rain to warm up. He paddled back across while I watched a thumb-sized Winter Wren forage for bugs on a five foot diameter silver stump.

We headed off on a steep beach with a rising tide chasing us like sandpipers higher up the strand line. Steep beaches are loose beaches generally, and the going was not so good. The head-wind was there and the rain, and the taunting words on Andrew Skurka’s annotated maps we carried noting how nice it had been for him to get off the slanted beach and onto the gravel road.

I’d given up on the road. Largely because I’d led two fruitless searches the day before. That day had been the worst day. I started really good with fine riding, a shipwreck out of Planet of the Apes meets Mad Max, food frenzy at Yakataga’s conex, and even four miles of road. The fruitless search for Skurka’s road netted us many miles but no forward progress as well as Devil’s club spines in our knuckles.

Most impressive to me that day was Brat’s fine Class IV bushwacking lead along rain-soaked mossy logs perched high off an invisible forest floor. After picking around vertical branches he log-walked out to a broken base 20 feet above a creek bed, stepped across the yawning gap to a shattered stump (a 5.4 move I swear, but horribly exposed), down-climbed, stepped across another gap to yet another stump and then worked his way to an wall of impenetrable brambles of sweet juicy fruit.

That was some sort of weird mix of the best and the worst of the worst day.

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But the on best day that started bad, Brat and Jebs studied Brat’s iPhone GPS and the vegetation visible along the beach, hoping for respite from head-winds and heavy rain.

We found no road that morning. That afternoon, turned back by a high tide consuming the coast that once held Guyot Bay and Icy Cape, with Big River’s live trees floating downstream into crashing surf, we waited. Out of the wind in the lee of a forest buried in sand, the sun came out, we dried around a fire, ate ad libitum and even napped until low tide.

At low tide we crossed the Big River, the sprinted around the eroding mud cliffs. On the beach beyond we picked up an ATV trail and then six miles of road to an Icy Bay beach where we camped at a 100 foot waterfall with high hopes for the next day’s crossing.

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We hoped that the rise in air pressure would continue, but it didn’t. The sucker holes were swallowed up in gray clouds, then rain fell, winds blew and our camp at the moraine of the Malaspina Glacier, would be our last wild camp – this year.

“Yea dudes,” said Doom, “We’ll be back next year to complete our Lost Coast by traversing the Malaspina section and riding that bad boy with our wheels on ice.”

So once again we’ll visit Yakutat, a town that left us with this memory:

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“I’m not letting you guys on the plane until you take showers.”

The Alaska Airlines employee was so serious that he went to town, bought us towels and toiletry kits, used his employee card to open up the employee showers, even gave us detergent to wash our clothes.

That’s saying something in a remote, soggy bush-town known for fishermen and loggers.

But I have to say, I was a pretty stinky blend of old man funk, boating cat-piss, bike BO, and bad farts from freeze-dried food, soaked in five days of rain and fermented in a one-piece dry-suit.

“Thanks,” I said, “I really appreciate the opportunity. I wish Alaska Airlines supplied me with a post-trip shower after every trip.”

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Photos by Mike Curiak, more excellent photos available on his adventure journal.

If you’re just joining, make sure to read Part 1 and Part 2.

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Continued from Part 1

Lost Coast North’s Obstacles

The Lost Coast falls logistically into three parts: Cordova to Icy Bay (Lost Coast North), Icy Bay to Yakutat Bay (the Malaspina Lost Coast), and Yakutat to Gustavus (Lost Coast South). The early hikers often split the coast in three, too, using the landing strips on either side of Icy Bay and Yakutat Bay instead of packrafts for the five-plus mile crossings of tide water. But the cost of a single engine Otter, a big plane that holds at least seven people and bikes, from Yakutat to Icy Bay is $1,700.

The 175 miles of Lost Coast North from Cordova to Icy Bay offer two major obstacles and a minor one. The two major obstacles are the Copper River Delta and Icy Bay. The minor one include the wicked tidal flats of Controller Bay.

Eric and the map suggested going from Cordova, taking the river down, an obviously easy start. A hydrologist will tell you to go to the end of the road out of Cordova, where the river has broken its bridge and washed it away. Put in there, he’ll say, where 90% of the 200,000 cfs is flowing, to be whisked down to Cottonwood Point near the Delta’s barrier islands.

But an Alaskan adventurer will tell you that road and river choice, ugly on the map, is missing out on a crossing of one of the major ecological features of his State: the Delta itself. It’s a key wilderness of shifting sands, shallow channels, and a thousand seals feasting on Copper River red salmon, with the looming Gulf just downstream.

Erin and Hig, who consider the Lost Coast their favorite stretch of the Seattle to Aleutian route, called the Delta “a vast and unnerving obstacle.” DeWoody and Lawson called it “a muddy Hell,” and don’t forget the world-wise Italian Doro called for a Coast Guard rescue from the midst of the Delta.

We left the Round Island bridge over the Copper River, 15 miles from the airport, fully engaged with riding soft sediments of sand-grain size and smaller that led to a flooded wetland. We inflated and loaded the bikes, working our way east into a fog that spread across the Delta as the moon rose and the sun set. Trippy, vertiginous fog swallowed up the shining mountains, leaving us with shallow water and a confusion of grounded logs moving fast in illusory currents.

Thankfully we made it to the north end of a long, unnamed island as it got too dark to paddle.

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The other major obstacle is Icy Bay, where ice bergs, headwinds and rain, or all three can block passage. Even during our remarkably calm crossing we found 15 foot swells capped with chop. We stopped only once during our six and a half mile crossing and it took us just under three hours. We left a little after low tide, more willing to be washed up bay than down into the Gulf. We squeaked through in a weather window of calm winds, little rain, and thankfully no ice.

Others have had glassy crossings. But during their November 2007 crossing, Hig and Erin had thick ice, big swells, chop and rainy winds. Turned back on their first attempt, only a quarter mile from shore, a floating wall of crushing ice forced them up bay. Then they peed themselves in the dark as they paddled the six miles back to the shore they’d left from.

The key piece of their conversation in this most dire of situations was this: that should they survive, they would have a child “soon after this trip”.

They waited a week for conditions to clear and cross.

There is an island in lower Icy Bay, Gull Island, a comforting place, with surf on the ocean side and a calm lee offering protection for landing on the east side of the Bay, just down-bay from the mouth of the Caetani River, where there is a private cabin that might serve emergency use.

The people at Icy Bay Lodge located on the shore of the only calm anchorage between Yakutat and Cordova are young and friendly. A road leads four miles to the airstrip.

Two other airstrips are worth noting. One on the west side of Icy Bay might serve well for pick-up or drop-off, too, as will the conex trailers at the Yakataga air strip. Both of these airfields have buildings around them and ATV trails leading from the beach.

Disaster Style

Disaster Style

The river crossings between the Delta and Icy Bay require mostly common sense, some survival skills and good knowledge of ferry angles. The Seal River had icebergs floating down from the Bering Glacier.  Its Colorado River-sized volume created an icy, little microclimate. For me, it was the most challenging crossing.

Many of the other crossings, including a multitude of tidal channels, we crossed “disaster style”, learned from Eric and Dylan in 2011. Wearing our packs or sitting on them, no spray skirt or deck, bike with both wheels still attached thrown on the bow, maybe balanced, maybe stabilized with a strap or two, disaster style is fast. But for the Seal River, the Big River, and, of course, the Copper and Icy Bay, we took off the wheels, and for the two big obstacles we packed our stuff in the zipper tubes.

Controller Bay surrounds Kanak Island and Okalee Spit, both of which have great beach riding. But the Bay itself covers a vast mud flat, unveiled at low tide. It’s another memorable obstacle to Lost Coast North travelers.

At the west end of Controller Bay we crossed multiple channels by strapping our backpacks to the bow of our packrafts with the waistbelt at the bow and the top of the pack at the second pair of grab loops. This way we could ride with the boats inflated on our backs so that transitions were quick and easy. The bike was balanced disaster style on the stern as the boater/biker sat on his pack still strapped to the bow and paddled across.

Disaster Style

At the east end, due to my off-the-couch fitness level, I found myself way back of the pack with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys waiting at the final channel. Alas, the tide was not so patient. As one of my teammates after another rode by with their rafts deflated and stowed, convinced there was no more water to paddle, I stopped and followed suit. Shoving a Cadbury bar into my mudhole while deflating, the tide crept up on me. I had to deflate and roll the boat in ankle deep and deepening water.

I pedaled off to higher mud, hurrying to catch up.

Ten minutes later, while the others waited on the far side of the last channel that none of us had seen, I had to quickly inflate the boat floating standing in the rising tide, bike balanced by my side.

Needless to say we all had dry-suits for these disaster-style shenanigans.

Lost Coast Science

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The geology and climate of the Lost Coast interact to make some of the most dynamic, dare I say powerful, geography on the continent.

First there’s the Pacific Plate diving tectonically below the North American Plate, scraping itself off as it goes. This leaves giant mountains, like the highest in Canada, Mt. Logan at 19,551 feet and Mt. St. Elias a hefty 18,009 feet rising right out of Icy Bay. Then there are the 14 other peaks above 14,000 feet crowded into the St. Elias and Chugach Ranges.

Second there are the Aleutian Island low pressure systems that spin counterclockwise over the Gulf of Alaska. This means they blow strongly, warm-ish and wet, right up the coast as you pedal toward Yakutat — or give you an awesome tail wind from Yakutat to Cordova during foul weather in July and August. When the weather clears (like in June), there’ll be a tail-wind from the northwest.

We never really got to enjoy those clear weather tail-winds, leaving as we did July 18. Alas, those clear tail-winds were there the week before and the week after Jon and Brett’s Alaska trip window.

We had the wet head-winds.

Third there’s the Japanese current that comes up from the tropics and across the Pacific to bring relatively warm water to the Gulf of Alaska where it meets the coast. Some of this water evaporates into the atmosphere to later condense in the high mountains, feeding giant glaciers, like Rhode Island-sized Bering and Malaspina Glaciers. The Bering Glacier and its associated Bagley Icefield is the largest glacier in North America with most of its outflow coming down the Seal River in a flow volume bigger than the Colorado of the Grand Canyon.

Ok, one more science lesson. As the climate warms the giant Malaspina and Bering Glaciers melt, lightening their load on the North American Plate. This lets the Pacific Plate slide a little deeper, generating more earthquakes, which in turn let loose more landslides, leading to local tsunamis in the bays and fiords of the Lost Coast.

And while we’re on the topic of “climate chaos” (one of our hiker’s phrase), it looks like sea level is rising, or maybe the severity of the storms is increasing, but this part of the Lost Coast, particularly west of Icy Bay is just getting consumed by the Pacific.

The North Pacific is clawing away at the coastal rain-forested coast, chewing up its trees and spitting them back out onto and sometimes into the coastal dunes. Miles of tall dunes have tree-sized logs skewered into their sides.

Some logs were lost from the logging hey-day west of Icy Bay over a decade ago. But most of the beach logs we pedaled by have root wads still attached and can be seen toppling into the surf near Icy Cape.

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Go to http://mapper.acme.com, search “Guyot Bay, AK”. Then marvel at the coastal erosion as you toggle between “Satellite” and “Topo”. Icy Cape and Guyot Bay are gone. It looks like over five square miles of coast has washed in to the ocean.

Hig has a great explanation of this beach erosion phenomenon on the Malaspina Lost Coast (Coastal Erosion at Malaspina Glacier).

If you should visit, you’ll note — as you hurry along the narrow beach and low tide surf grabs at your rims — that above you stretch 40 foot high mud cliffs blocking any escape.  Better get to the beach beyond quick!

Unlike the wild, Lost Coast South there are boats and cabins, roads, trucks, and ATVs, clear cuts, air fields and lodges, even bridges and telephones along the Lost Coast North. These human fingerprints do not diminish the majesty of the mountains, the ferocity of the surf, the power of the rivers draining the glaciers above. These signs of humanity do make for somewhat more comfortable respite from rain and brush, and for that human contact that we all find so much more valuable when it’s rare.

Stay tuned for the Part 3…

Roman Dial is no stranger to Alaska’s Lost coast. Perhaps that is why, instead of chronologically ordering the days of suffering, this story is full of history, geography, and earth science. Not enough time has passed since Roman and this all-star crew, who he quickly introduces in this story, departed to forget just how the tempestuous wind and icy precipitation feels as it hits your skin. He has a way with words though. You’re more likely to leave feeling intrigued, inspired and wanting to explore the wilds of Alaska than you are hindered by the weather, the unpredictable, and the unknown.

Part 1 of 3

Misery loves company and hammering along at three, maybe four miles an hour max into heavy rain and a stiff headwind, I loved our pace line, five of us fat tire to fat tire grinding low gears across soft sand.

Roman Dial intro

Loaded with packrafts and food we were following the epic “Lost Coast” of Alaska, 500 miles of coastline pinched between the biggest, iciest mountains in North America and its stormiest sea.

Back in 2011 three of our group tutored under expeditionary beach-boating bike pioneers Dylan Kentch and Eric Parsons. Through salt, sand, and surf we bike’n’boated the wild end of the Lost Coast. That 200 or so miles of coastline south from Yakutat to Glacier Bay included ten days of June sunshine, big beaches, big boulders, bad brush, tidal rides, and a nasty cop at the end (Pedal, Paddle, Push). Our Lost Coast South trip was 60% pedaling, 30% paddling, and a full 10% nasty pushing, carrying, and sometimes throwing bikes.

Doom (Steve Fassbinder), MC (Mike Curiak) and I were back to finish the Lost Coast by traveling its north end, this time with young Jebs (Jon Bailey) and smiling Brat (Brett Davis). Jebs and Brat had fat-biked and packrafted the tussock tundra and gravel bars of the Brooks Range with Doom last year. They were eager to sample beach riding.

Steve Fassbinder was a bike messenger when he headed to Burning Man and came back Captain Doom. Rail thin, with a neatly trimmed handlebar mustache, and a contagious, easy laugh, Doom mixes competence, intelligence, and a touch of compassion with western wear on a bicycle. Doom’s variety of adventure germinated on the Colorado Plateau when he and Jebs started a crew of banditos that applies packrafts, desert riding, and tower climbing. He works at Alpacka Rafts, rides for Specialized and generally lives large #doomstyle.

Apparently the Republic of Doom has a rather large -- and female -- fan base.

Apparently the Republic of Doom has a rather large — and female — fan base.

MC really needs no introduction. He earned a hard-won reputation grinding out miles setting records on the gravel Divide and snowy Iditarod races of enduro-cycling. He builds wheels (big ones) and bikes (good ones) and picked up his first packraft five years ago. If a packrafter is someone who has not been a kayaker first, he’s the best packrafter I have ever seen. His combat rolls in big water inspire. A mechanic in everything he does, Mike picks up something new, strips it down, then puts it back together better than when he picked it up. He’s smart, funny, facetious bordering on sarcastic, and likeable, but not particularly good looking, thank god.

Jebs, a child of the 80s, offered up energy and enthusiasm to buoy us all. Part of an employee-owned bike shop in Durango, he was quick to fix anything that went wrong, whether mechanical or motivational. His big grin beneath a curly mop never seemed to sag, even when rain soaked alders like a car wash on our fruitless out and back searches for the mythical Yakataga road.

“You know RoMan, it’s nice to have you along, ‘cause in the Brooks Range I was always the last one ready,” and with that he pedaled away as I cinched another strap.

Like me, JB was often fussing around with this or that after the others had pedaled or paddled off, but he was also the one who checked-in making sure everyone was doing OK. Like the others, his talents go beyond riding and suffering misery.

When we finally got to Yakutat, belly up to the bar, a woman came in asking for help fixing her TV. Doom and Brat volunteered Jebs, who, pro mechanic that he his, fixed the TV in no time, then graciously accepted the $20 she offered him for the deed. With that soggy Jackson he bought a round of Glenlivet for us all, drinking his while playing the bar’s piano.

The oldest of the Lost Boys, Brat wore their trademark perpetual grin and traveled “team heavy”, emphasis on team. As the director of the outdoor program at Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Brett’s livelihood depends on making sure everyone is safe and well cared for. He carried the biggest load of water, for instance, and was quick to fill when we pulled into camp in the rain. Educated at the University of Chicago in economics, his grooming to be a financial whiz came to naught when he decided to boat, bike, climb, ski and hike all around the world.

All four of these Coloradoans are active outdoor guys in work and play. They ride everyday. The oldest was ten years my junior. So when I somehow invited myself along and fell off the couch, landing upright on a sweet, carbon-fiber Fat Boy, courtesy of Doom, I risked holding the group back. But as more adventure than goal-seeking, they big-heartedly waited for me to catch up hour after hour, day after day.

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Seven Day Route

Our seven day route this year to just beyond Icy Bay Lodge would pencil out at 175 miles, although we’d planned for 100 miles farther on to Yakutat, but were shut down by weather and a tight time schedule. The Lost Coast North route we followed was well over 70% riding on 20 or so beaches that stretched between packraft crossings or rocky points. The other 50 miles followed roads (15 miles) parallel to the beach or beefy bodies of water by boat (35 miles): the Copper River Delta, Icy Bay, and the Caetani River pumping out of the Malaspina Glacier’s moraine. The only extensive pushing we did was up or across creeks and the only bushwhacking a mistake.

We were not the first to pedal, paddle, and push this coastline. In 2008 during August, the rainiest of the summer months, averaging nearly an inch each day, Eric and Dylan left Yakutat Airport headed for Russell Fjord, its terrifying Hubbard Gap between rocks and hard, falling ice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afrTbAXW2BE). It took them several days to give up on dragging their bikes in the rain through alders bristling along steep mountain slopes. Instead they braved the shards of ice pushed by erratic waves born of calving Hubbard Glacier in the Hubbard Gap itself, a varying-sized slot between cliffs and the massive glacier’s calving face.

Riding single speeds, their trip ground to a standstill until Eric’s folded chain-ring was replaced by an airdrop. They had some stumbling around the Malaspina’s ocean side moraine, an easy crossing of Icy Bay, great beach riding, and even a fishing boat trip across the bastard that is Controller Bay.

Details are few (but see http://www.adn.com/outdoors/article/riding-and-packrafting-alaskas-lost-coast/2008/10/26/ ) on what was surely the gnarliest Alaskan bike trip in a century, since George Pilcher stuffed rope in his tires at the end of his 550 mile ride from Nome to his cabin on the Lower Yukon in 1908.

On burly brake-less Pugsleys, Eric and Dylan faced a surly, dynamic clash between seaside and mountain-scape, establishing what has to be the best wild beach riding on the continent — if by best, your definition is that it’s mostly roadless but rideable, sometimes challenging but not muddy (too often), visually exciting, and certainly not devoid of spicy water crossings.

Since that visionary ride of 2008, the stretch of coastline from Yakutat to Cordova has become a classic verging on trade route. Following Dylan and Eric, Cameron Lawson and Brett DeWoody (Biking the Lost Coast) repeated the route sans Hubbard Gap in August 2010. In August 2011 an impressive Italian, Maurizio Doro (video of tripwords and photos), who did the Hubbard Gap-less route solo in about the same number of days as Dylan and Eric, although he required a Coast Guard rescue near the end for murky reasons.

I have heard of at least one other Alaskan fat-bike group who did Cordova to Yakutat in ten days of sunny weather in the last year or two. Keeping their trip to themselves, I’ll leave it at that.

Gordy Vernon coined the phrase “Lost Coast” (good advice on the Lost Coast at http://www.anchoragepress.com/news/rules-road-southeast) after he hiked with Dick Griffith from Yakutat to Cordova back in April 2003 and wrote about it in We Alaskans.  He came back from that trip saying, “Roman, you should go bike those beaches.”

Dick had done the southern portion two or three times in the 1990s calling it the best trip in Alaska. Then Erin McCittrick and Hig Higman came though on their year long trek out of Seattle during November 2007. Erin devoted two chapters to the Lost Coast in her first book, A Long Trek Home.  In the last decade, particularly with the popular discovery of packrafts, it has emerged as an Alaskan wilderness destination. The stretch between Cordova and Yakutat could be called North America’s fat-biking test piece and the stretch from Yakutat to Glacier Bay among the best wilderness trips in Alaska.

While we rode and paddled, two friends who’d left Cordova the day before us walked the same route. We caught and camped with them, and MC, always the communicator, kept in touch with them as we travelled in parallel via InReach. Stopped, too, by weather (and maybe sore feet) a day behind us, we shared the airplane that picked them up on the west side of Icy Bay and us on its east side.

 

Wilderness Riding is Off-trail, not just Off-road

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Fat-bikes have emerged as the ultimate wilderness riding machine, where there are few to no maintained human trails  and riding takes place on wild animal trails, raw sediments like sand, gravel, and cobbles, low vegetation, and even glacier ice. Multi-day wilderness cycling adventures have centered, with the exception of Alaska and recent journeys to Mongolia, mostly in deserts: Australia’s Outback, Africa’s Sahara, Tibet’s Chang Tang Plateau, Utah.

To call wilderness cycling “bike-packing” is a bit like calling a climb up El Capitan’s Nose a steep hike.

In Alaska, the most popular multi-day wilderness routes follow beaches, like portions of the Kenai Peninsula’s “Hope to Homer”, the rideable Lost Coast North; the boulder-strewn Malaspina Lost Coast, the wild Lost Coast South, and the muddy Lava Coast on the Bering Sea side of the Alaska Peninsula.

Several of Alaska’s major mountain ranges including the Alaska, Brooks, Kenai, Wrangells, and Talkeetnas have been crossed or traversed lengthwise via wilderness routes by riders going uber-light on 26-inch hard-tails

Fat-bikes hung with frame-bags stuffed with food for a week or more, and a boat and paddle for every rider, make wilderness trips heavy. A heavy bike makes pushing something to avoid and carrying impossible. In other words, pure-bred cyclists might find fat-bikes and mountains an unsatisfying mix, not worth the effort.

Hence beach rides have emerged as the most popular destinations for Alaska’s wilderness riding. Eric pioneered fat-bikes across mountain wilderness, too, when he and Dylan (on a single-speed mountain bike) crossed the Wrangell Mountains via the 150 mile Nabesna to McCarthy route, a route Jon Underwood, Carl Tobin, and I pedaled and packrafted in 1988. Just this year, a group of Spanish came and took ten days to fat-bike Nabesna to McCarthy with seven days food, pushing more than they expected.

One approach to wilderness mountain routes is to take only one boat and one paddle and travel as light as possible with the intention of riding as much as possible.

If you are just going to push, maybe a wheelbarrow’s more appropriate, right?

Stay tuned for part 2…

Photos by Mike Curiak