Riding on the Edge
(Alaskan Bush Relative to Iowa Hills)
By Troy Henkels
Being an explorer started for me at a very young age. It was never enough to go only as far as I could see. I had to go over the next hill, and the next, and the next, knowing full well if I explored forever, I would never see it all. Countless days of my youth were spent exploring the back roads and backwoods of Dubuque County. Fortunately my parents recognized this, and moved the family to the country when I was very young. Possibly there were other reasons, but I like to think they were looking to quell my thirst for exploring, and knew I wouldn’t be content growing up in the city. Whatever the reason, they were right and I had the good fortune to be raised in the country with plenty of places to roam and explore.
Judging from the maps I wasn’t even sure the trip could be done. With that in mind, I knew I had to try. For over ten years I have concocted backcountry adventures around Alaska. For me, they are exploratory forays into a wilderness untouched and unpopulated by man, where weather patterns and wildlife rule the landscape. In typical fashion I envisioned a route through a section of wilderness I had not yet explored, nor, could I find anyone that had. My concentration was an area just North of Denali National Park. I had been up many of the peaks in the area, but had started focusing on mountains further away. This trip would take me through an area too remote to be easily accessible on foot. It was recipe I had used often in the wilderness; set off into the unknown, alone, traveling light, and going far. I would push the limits of endurance, distance, and daylight. Alaska’s long hours of daylight meant I could get further into the bush for longer periods of time. I had done many overnight journeys, but recently I’ve taken to day trips and seeing how far I could really get into the backcountry and back out in a single day.
However, this trip would be different. I wanted to mountain bike 40-60 miles into the bush using old mining roads and river drainages to make a large loop from my starting point back to an active highway. By studying topographic maps, it made sense and looked almost feasible. However, in Alaska, things don’t always work out as planned. I knew for this trip I would need a capable partner. The distances were just to great to take a chance of going solo and having a problem. Being 60 miles into the Alaskan bush can spell disaster and sometimes death, with no quick rescue. I haven’t been one to avoid risks. I actually welcome them, but in a calculated manner, limiting the chance of accidents when possible. This would be one of those trips where caution was necessary.
I found myself spending another summer in Denali National Park and early on I started searching for a partner. I found him in a lively 23-year-old named Brady, that was rarely seen without his bike. I figured if he was on his bike all the time he must be in good enough shape to ride 60 miles, off-road, in a day. My approach to Brady was subtle, mentioning my idea, not sure what his reaction would be. He beamed with the thought and said to count him in, despite my warnings of a very long day, barely navigable terrain, river crossings, and deep wilderness. This just spurred him on. Exactly the reaction I had hoped.
In early July we set out to explore some wilderness and to spend one long day on our bikes. We drove the first 30 miles to our takeoff spot at the roads end. It was amazing to me that before we even started we were 30 miles into the bush! Brady, like any 23 year old took off at break neck speed down the first hill, despite my advisement to set a pace that he could maintain for hours on end. With my age I was considered the “old man” and Brady the one that was “young and dumb”. By the first steep uphill, Brady was pushing his bike as I strolled by, riding at a steady pace. From that point on, Brady understood, it was going to be a long day of biking.
We rode to sunny skies and warm temperatures, a real treat in the interior of Alaska. The trail took us through an old coal mining district, and was fairly nice going. Although not maintained it was seldom traveled and threaded us over rolling hills with views of all the surrounding peaks….Sugarloaf, Jumbo Dome, Pete’s Peak(which I named after climbing, for my Father…a story for another time), and Mt. Dora. The landscape was beautiful and endless and I was thrilled at being able to explore places that I had only looked at on a map. The trail winds and twists us 15 miles deeper into the Alaskan bush.
Finally we descend into a river valley and the trail becomes a bit more obscure as we pass remnants of early mining days. We will cross, countless rivers on this journey, this I know from studying the maps. So the first is of no surprise when we dip into the frigid waters. Fortunately the weather has been kind and the rivers are not running high now. Even so, several crossings challenge our physical stamina. The trail changes under wheel each time we climb out of a stream. Often, I resort to the topographic map to figure our route, and realize the only way to get to where we hope to go, is to follow the river, which in turn becomes our trail. With cold toes, we press on, deeper into the unknown.
The area we travel through is considered the Liberty Bell Mining District. Although there are still mining claims in the area, there is little active mining. Most of the mining was done in the 1940s and 1950s. To our surprise in one aspen lined river valley, we come across several homesteads, where active gold mining is taking place, using old methods. Several families exist deep in the bush with little contact to the outside world. I’m deeply impressed that a family can survive the hardships of the Alaska bush, so far away from modern conveniences. The children seem happily content to be playing in the wilderness and we, on our bikes, seem to be a bit of a novelty to them. It was apparent that not many people make it this far into the bush to visit them. This family is very helpful in giving us some much needed direction on which is the best way to travel and about the upcoming river crossings. We are told few people make it this far, because of the dangerous river crossings. We traveled on, not sure what to expect.
By the time we reach the big rivers, I’m tired and Brady is exhausted. Crossing the Totatlanika was absolutely challenging in the thigh deep, chilly, swift moving water. We shoulder the bikes and fortunately, make the crossing without incident. With more than 20 miles to go, we gradually cross California Creek and Eva Creek, less challenging, but equally cold. As we find better trail and more recent mining remnants, possibly from the 60s, we climb out of the valleys and above tree line. More than one spot offers us spectacular views of snow- covered Denali (Mt. McKinley), soaring in the distance, more than 100 miles away. A fine reward to all the miles traveled in the lowlands.
The last difficult climb takes us to Boot Hill. A cemetery of sorts used by generations of local miners and their families as repose for their worn out boots. Certainly an oddity of humanity in this pristine wilderness. With relief we begin the ten-mile descent back to the road system and civilization. Our last highlight is passing though “Windy City”, an area home to some very large dilapidated pieces of heavy mining equipment and even heavier winds. The wind historically blows here and today is no different as we are buffeted with 30-knot gusts.
By days end, Brady and I have traveled more than 50 miles. We are both in awe of the beauty and remoteness of the bush that we traveled, in a relatively short amount of time. For me, it is no different than the days of my youth exploring the rolling hills of Iowa. I know now, as I did then, if I hadn’t dreamed of what was beyond the next hill, I would have never explored there. Just like Iowa and my youth, I’m left wondering what is beyond the next hill in Alaska and life.
Troy Henkels lives in Denali Park, Alaska. He is a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, and the son of Pete and Mary Henkels, of Dubuque. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa on August 11th, 2002. Copyright 2002, Troy Henkels