River Meets Road: Across Alaska by Bike and Boat
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As the recipient of the 2018 Kyle Dempster Solo Adventure Award, Jessica Kelley mapped out and attempted a 1,300-mile bikepacking and packrafting route across Alaska. In this trip recap, she talks about confronting real fear, grapples with the thought of disappointing others, and reflects on what it means to undertake such a massive journey alone…
Words and photos by Jessica Kelley (@jessi_goes)
I was paddling hard across the main channel of the Yukon River, digging in with each stroke as the shore flew by in front of me. This stretch of the Yukon doesn’t have whitewater, but it moves along at 5-6 mph; the pace of a steady jog. The water is cold and thick with glacial silt that hisses against the hull of your boat. Right then, the river’s hiss was drowned out by the splashing sounds of my frantic paddling. I couldn’t believe I was in this situation.
Before you float the 160-mile section of the Yukon through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, everyone warns you about the takeout in the town of Circle. It can only be accessed by turning left down a side channel, and if you miss Circle, your next takeout is 70 miles downstream in Fort Yukon. In addition, the Yukon is more than miles wide in places, and moving from one side of the river to the other is no easy feat. Making the takeout requires forethought and attention.
I knew I was supposed to be on the far left side of the river, yet there I was approaching the takeout in the middle of the main channel. I continued to paddle hard, refusing to give up. After several desperate minutes I finally, barely, made it safely to the side channel. I rested my paddle on the tubes of my boat and caught my breath while a bald eagle watched me skeptically from a log on the beach.
How could I almost miss the takeout? Because, embarrassingly, when it came time to make that one critical left turn, I was focused on my inReach satellite messenger. Yep, I was alone in a packraft with a bike lashed to the bow of my boat, in the midst of a grand Alaskan adventure, yet still craving goodnight emojis from my kiddo and random satellite text messages from my husband.
Last night, our daughter, who we affectionately call Bug, had messaged me: “This is bug. Guess what? I lost my tooth! I love you and miss you. Goodnight.”
Tonight: “This is buggie. I 💖u.🙂. I miss you very much 💔😔”
The messages were bittersweet, a painful reminder of everything I was missing at home, yet tethering me to my family in a way that felt invaluable. Why did I intentionally create these separations that left me with such a sense of loneliness and longing?
This wasn’t my first solo trip by any means. I actually like spending time alone, and prefer adventuring by myself. I’d been awarded the Kyle Dempster Solo Adventure Award and was eager to embody Kyle’s adventurous and independent spirit. As he says at the beginning of The Road From Karakol, “I chose a bike, instead of a partner. The road, instead of a base camp.” And indeed, I did the same for this trip to Alaska. It was just me, my bike, and my packraft, pedaling 1,190 miles and paddling 160 miles around Alaska.
My journey began in Anchorage, riding northeast out of the city. Although I mostly stuck to the Glenn Highway for the first two days, I also explored some backroads, such as the crumbling, overgrown Pinochle Creek Road that briefly runs parallel to the Glenn Highway, offering an escape from speeding cars and RVs. On my third day, a brisk tailwind pushed me along the edge of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, past giant stratovolcanoes and untracked wilderness to the south.
I then headed north on the Taylor Highway, off pavement and into the funky mining town of Chicken, where the cafe serves doughy cinnamon rolls as big as your head. Beyond Chicken, I tackled the long gravel grind to American Summit, pausing at the top to whoop gleefully into the wind as it whipped my hair into knots. After almost 600 miles and six days of riding, I finally arrived in Eagle, a small town at the end of the road, perched above the Yukon River. Eagle is where the river meets the road.
When I got to Eagle, I filed a backcountry float plan with the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and the ranger asked me what I was going to do with my bike while I floated down the Yukon.
“I’m going to lash it to the bow of my boat.”
“You’re gonna do what?” he asked. It seemed as though he genuinely hadn’t heard me, so I spoke louder and more clearly.
“I’M GOING TO LASH IT. TO THE BOW. OF MY BOAT.”
“You’re gonna do what?” He asked again, as he lowered his glasses and squinted at me.
That night, I called my husband Tom, fighting back tears. “I’m scared,” I said quietly. I’d prepared diligently for the trip, but there was still so much that could go wrong, especially alone on the river. Tom paused, then reassured me that everything would be fine. When I returned home weeks later, Tom confessed that he hadn’t known how to respond during the call. He’d never heard me express fear before, and it worried him.
The morning I put in, the same ranger came down to the river to see me off, taking pictures as I loaded my gear into the cargo fly, inflated the boat, and strapped my bike to the bow. He was visibly relieved when he saw that the rig did indeed float.
As I paddled away from the shore he shouted admiringly, “It actually looks like you’ve got the weight pretty well distributed in that thing!” And it was true. With my gear stored in the boat tubes and my bike firmly bungeed to the bow, the boat felt great and handled well in the water, just as it had during my training trips.
I’d heard stories about large and abundant grizzly bears roaming the banks of the Yukon River, and I made sure my bear spray was always within reach. Every time I paddled ashore, even before I put a foot on solid ground, I called out to any grizzlies who might be lounging in the bush, “Hey bear! Heyyy bear!”
Perhaps because of these measures, I only saw one grizzly while paddling the Yukon. It was a giant brown mass that lumbered through the brush on the far side of the river. However, I saw several moose, and one of my closest wildlife encounters of the trip happened early one morning on the river. As I paddled down a narrow side channel, a bull moose emerged from the brush and waded into the water in front of me. I quickly realized we were on a collision course, so I reached down and blared the small marine air horn I kept accessible in my boat.
The air horn didn’t faze him at all. He just glanced at me and kept wading into the river as I floated toward him. Sometimes 5-6 mph felt unbearably slow, but right now it felt much too fast. I started looking for a place to eddy out, and also grabbed my bear spray, hoping I wouldn’t have to use it. If I did, though, I hoped it’d be more effective than the air horn.
My guess is that the air horn didn’t faze him because it’s not a distinctly human noise. Maybe he didn’t even know what I was. Perhaps I looked like some kind of large ugly swan, part plastic, part metal, making loud honking noises. But he seemed to figure it out as soon as he heard my human voice. He made his way to shore surprisingly quickly for such a broad, awkward animal, kicking up big splashes of water with each step. Once he was on solid ground, he kept on trotting, glancing back occasionally until he disappeared into the brush. I took a deep breath and exhaled, reminded again of how vulnerable I really was, floating alone down an immense river in a tiny inflatable boat.
I reached Circle after three days on the river, where I rolled up my boat and lashed it to my rear rack. It was 5:00 pm, and I was craving a burger, a beer, and a bed. None of these are available for purchase in the tiny village of Circle, but I knew that Central, 35 miles up the road, had a roadhouse. Although I’d already paddled 40 miles that day, I got on my bike and panted up wet gravel roads through thick clouds of black flies to Central.
Once there, I treated myself to dinner and a room at the Central Corner, the only option in town. It was luxury by remote AK standards, as evidenced by the 4-star rating it gets on TripAdvisor, with the following review, “Central Corner is OPEN… Food is good, phone works, shower is ok, bathrooms have toilets that flush, people are nice…” Yep, that sums it up. It felt like the Four Seasons to me, given my accommodations the previous few days.
The next morning I began riding the Steese Highway southwest into Fairbanks. The mosquitoes and black flies along the Steese were relentless, pestering me incessantly, causing me to yell out several times in futile frustration.
I’d been invited to stay at a friend’s house in Fairbanks and was looking forward to some social interaction. In the privacy of their guest room, I changed out of my bike shorts and looked down at my legs in shock. My thighs were literally covered in bites, and each bite was surrounded by a large bruise. I’d spent plenty of time in bug-infested places, but I’d never had a reaction like this before.
It just so happened that one of my friends was a physician assistant, so I hesitantly showed him the bruises and told him about my clotting disorder and medication. His eyes widened. “Oh. Hmm. That’s… interesting,” he said. I looked at him. “Interesting? What the hell does that mean?” I asked. He laughed and said, “At least I didn’t say it was ‘fascinating.’ If your legs were completely detached from your body, now that would be ‘fascinating.’”
I called my hematologist in Seattle for advice. He ordered blood work and recommended that I monitor the bruising for 24 hours. He didn’t seem overly concerned, which was reassuring. I spent my one rest day of the trip on the phone with my family, agonizing over my options.
Ultimately, I decided to continue on, but to modify my route just slightly. I had planned to paddle the next section of the journey, but instead opted to ride the road, which would put me in a less remote location in case I needed an emergency evacuation. I mailed my packraft home ahead of me. It had served me well, but the rest of the adventure would be by bike. At the post office, my stomach twisted with relief and regret. I knew I was making the safe and smart choice, but I still wasn’t fully convinced that it was the right choice.
By the next morning the bruises seemed slightly improved and my initial bloodwork came back normal, so with my doctor’s approval I continued my journey south along the Parks Highway toward Denali National Park. We never did figure out what the problem was, but I remain grateful for the hospitality of my Fairbanks friends that came at just the right time.
Denali was the perfect distraction after the medical drama in Fairbanks. The first section of the road through the park is paved, but after mile 15 it becomes a well-maintained gravel road that is closed to public vehicles. I took a park shuttle bus to mile 85, and then rode back on my own, thrilled to be pedaling alone through such a vast landscape. It was an astonishingly clear day, and the mountain was fully visible as I rolled past numerous grizzly sows and cubs, as well as foxes and Dall’s sheep.
From Denali, it’s a relatively short ride down the Parks Highway to Hurricane Gulch, where I caught the Hurricane Turn train, one of the last flagstop trains (meaning folks can wave a white cloth anywhere along the route and the train will stop to pick them up) in North America. As the train came down the tracks, I waved at the engineer, and the train slowed to a halt. I lifted my bike onto an open-air boxcar and held on tight as we chugged up the Indian River Valley, delivering people and gear to backcountry cabins accessible only by train. I hopped off the train in Talkeetna and then headed for Anchorage, now in the final days of my trip.
As I pedaled into Anchorage, I found myself thinking about Kyle again. Without the Kyle Dempster Solo Adventure Award, this trip wouldn’t have been possible. Had I lived up to the purpose of the award? Did my adventure “embody Kyle’s creative spirit and his desire to explore wild places?” I wasn’t so sure. I knew before I started the journey that every trip has its highs and lows, but my pangs of loneliness and vulnerability had caught me off-guard. Before I’d left for the trip, I was worried that I might not want to return to my regular suburban life after. But while I was gone, I looked around the tent each night with a sense of both freedom and foreboding. Everything around me was all mine, for my adventure, for my amusement, for my survival. I was the only one there! I was the only one there.
When I won this award, I wanted to do something that Kyle would be proud of, and in my mind that meant something truly wild and crazy, and completely independent. This trip was some of those things, but I also leaned heavily on family and friends, especially when the shit hit the fan. Even so, I think Kyle would be proud of my journey, and my realization that family and friends are important to me, as are adventure and independence. Both can be true. Those who knew Kyle have assured me that he also valued community and connection, so maybe I ended up honoring his spirit and memory after all.
I don’t do hard things because they’re comfortable, or because every moment of the trip is fun. I separate myself from my family and I make myself physically and mentally uncomfortable because I like to see what happens. Because I like learning that indeed, I can handle it. Or maybe I can’t. And if I can’t, who do I rely on?
Alaska taught me that I’m not really the lone wolf I might make myself out to be. When push comes to shove, I relied on community just like every other primate out there (and just like most wolves, for that matter). There are still plenty of times that silence and solitude are my favorite companions. And I do love being able to handle a situation by myself, like blaring the air horn at the moose while eddying out with one hand. But as I’m sure Kyle himself would agree, one of the best things about traveling alone is that it makes you more open to connecting with others, and to appreciating those you’ve left behind.
About Jessica Kelley
Jessica Kelley is an endurance coach, writer, and photographer living in Seattle with her husband, daughter, and the two best dogs ever. She loves traversing landscapes under her own power, and you can often find her exploring the Pacific Northwest by bike, packraft, or on foot. Her favorite time of day is right after her first sip of coffee. You can follow her adventures on her website or on Instagram @jessi_goes.