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3 Dudes, 3 Days & 3 Fat Bikes - An Alaskan Adventure

Story by Dan Bailey April 7th, 2015

The Idea

The short story: Glenn came to Alaska to have a nice, snowy fat bike adventure. Drove 2,000 miles around the State with Josh looking for snow. Found almost none in our dismal low snow year. Called up Dan, who had just returned from sunny California, and was looking for one last winter adventure before spring. Suggested they ride out the Knik Glacier to camp and hopefully watch the northern lights from out on the ice.
Turns out Dan was already planning that for the very same weekend. Plus he really wanted to ride bikes with Josh and Glenn.

3 Dudes, 3 Bikes and 3 Fujis

Glenn Charles (Left) - Riding a Salsa Cycles Ti Mukluk. Lives in an Inn on the north coast of Maine. Spends much of the year adventuring on his bicycles. Likes Burbon, scotch, beer, wholesome food, his internal gearing Rohloff hub, his Fuji X100T and Ireland. You can see his photography here.

Me (Middle) - Riding an aluminum frame Fatback. Lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Spends way too much time at his desk and not enough time adventuring. Just wrote a book on adventure photography. Flies a little yellow Cessna. Likes beer, his Fuji X-T1, guitars, bread, pasta and pizza, (so basically carbs), and anywhere a good mountain is to be found. See more of his photos here

Josh Spice (Right) - The tall one. Riding a Salsa Cycles Ti Mukluk. Lives in a cabin with no running water in Fairbanks, Alaska. Works in the wilderness. Has a great beard. Rides with a survival knife on his belt. Hunts caribou with a bow. Likes beer, dogs, wild places, his Fuji X-T1 and kittens. You can see his photography here.


Gearing up

Parking at the giant dirt lot in Palmer, our plan was to ride in from the Jim Creek side, which is about 25 miles from the glacier. The Hunter Creek side is closer, but with two weeks of 40+ degree temps and little snow, we speculated that the deeper open water sections would make the river impassible.
Mine was the clean bike with the brand new drivetrain. That would soon change.
Glenn's bike
Josh brought the hatchet like a good Alaskan.
Josh's other necessities.
My clean Fatback, full of Revelate Designs bags.


After riding a short trail, we reached the open gravel bar where we’d have to cross Jim Creek. Although it looked (barely) frozen, we were concerned about the warm temps and rushing water underneath. We made it across, but not before I broke through the ice to my axle and punched through to my knee. Further upstream, Josh broke through to his waist and fell chest-first into the icy cold river with his camera around his neck. Fortunately, the Fuji X-T1 is weather sealed, and it seemed to suffer no damage. The non-weather sealed lens XF 56mm f/1.2 lens didn’t fare so well. It got a large amount of water inside the front element and will have to be sent back to be professionally cleaned.

After making it across the river, we followed a muddy 4x4 track inside the forest just above the open gravel bar. This would allow us to bypass a number of additional river braids as we rode upstream, but it meant riding through miles of mud and huge puddles that were still frozen on the bottom. These sections actually made for easy (but slow) riding, as our studded tires cut right through and gave us good traction. With the muddy sections, not so much.

Glenn ride one of the dry sections
Heading into another puddle
Low angle mud
"Hey Dan, it gets better up ahead!"
Some puddles were too deep to ride
Will we ever get to actually ride our bikes?
Time to lube the chain.

Then came the Bushwhacking

After breaking out on the river bar, we experienced some actual bike riding that went on for at least couple miles. Then we hit a spot where the main branch of the Knik River cuts against the bank and had to cut back into the woods. Due to a simple navigation error that could have easily have been avoided on all of our parts, we had trouble finding the right trail and killed about two hours bushwhacking with our heavy loaded bikes, or as some people often call it, “stumblef***ing,” where we lost the tent pole, and had to do even more backtracking to find it.

Just when we thought we’d made it, we found ourself on a steep bank above the Knik with absolutely no way around on either side. Feeling stupid and nearly out of daylight, we “back-whacked” back to the main gravel bar and set up camp for the night.

Glenn wishing he didn't have panniers
Josh wishing he didn't have bar ends
Glenn strong arming the Mukluk
Isn't this fun?
At least the view is good
Almost there. I swear!

OUr First campsite

Slight aurora activity on our first night on the Knik River gravel bar
Night skies above the Knik River Gravel bar, Knik Glacier and the Chugach Mountains
Breaking camp.

The Gravel Bar

Day Two: We broke camp, rode through some more mud and ice puddles, and finally found the right trail before emerging at the wide open gravel bar on the upper Knik. This gave us a number of fairly good miles with a great view (we saw lots of goats on the surrounding hillsides), but it also meant enduring lots of 4x4 traffic by the locals who gas it out to the glacier on weekends.

Although this part got pretty frustrating, especially for Josh, who was hoping for a bona-fide wilderness experience, we soon made it to moraine, where we finally got a close up view of the massive Knik Glacier.

Glenn riding toward the glacier
Josh pedaling against 4x4 traffic

Riding around the icebergs

Of course, the payoff for all of our muddy, watery, foresty escapades was actually getting to ride our bikes around the icebergs on the frozen Knik Glacier lagoon. This is where the ice calves off from the toe of the glacier and float around before melting and becoming silty fertilizer water for the Matanuska Valley. In winter, the glacier lake is frozen, and all the icebergs sit motionless, stuck in the ice like enormous blue monoliths, like something out of 2001, except instead of a space odyssey, it’s a frozen odyssey.

We rode around for a few hours and shot tons of photos of each other. Glenn and I were veterans, we’d been here before, but intrepid Josh the Alaskan had never experienced anything like this before, and he was like a kid in a candy store. Plus he’s younger; he was born in the 80s and wasn’t nearly concerned about the physical dangers of riding around on icebergs and possibly hurting himself. Even with studded tires, a fall could still hurt. Nonetheless, Josh summoned up his best Fuji Courage and carried on with great spectacle for Glenn and me.

Glenn checking out the ice tower.
Josh riding around on the ice.
Camera happy Glenn.
Pointy iceberg.
Riding in front of the Knik.
Josh and Glenn out on the ice
Josh riding on top of an iceberg.
The iceberg fun never ends!
In front of a mountain that looks sort of like Denali, but isn't.
Studded tires rule.

Camping by a glacier

Once we were done frolicking around on the glacier, Glenn, Josh and set up camp on a sandbar right at the edge of the glacier, next to a huge pile of wood that had been ripped from the surrounding hillsides and transported here by the advancing ice over the years. First order of business, get the fire going, which helped to ward off the chill from being right next to that much ice after the sun goes down. After dinner and drying out our wet shoes and socks, we set up our tripods and waited for dark and the aurora borealis that was forecast to be “active” that night. Miles away from any urban lights, we hoped for the best…

Josh getting that thing off his bike for the camera when the light was good.
Josh still getting that thing while Glenn makes dinner.
I think he finally found it.
Stoking the fire.
Hero shot.

The NOrthern Lights

Through every soupy mud trench, every ice puddle, every dusty, sandy mile out to the glacier, I’d been thinking about the aurora display that we might see out here. We were not disappointed that night. What a special experience for the three of us to have camped out here under the northern lights, in the shadow of millions of tons of ice, away from everything and everyone else.

Last Day

After a quiet breakfast by our fire, which we stoked throughout the night, we began our journey back down the Knik river bar. Although we had no navigational mishaps and managed to ride the entire 25 miles in good time, the day was not without adventure. Glenn fell over into a mud puddle, and we had to be shuttled back across the now open and running Jim Creek. Thanks to the two valley guys who gave us a lift and suffered their own mishap in doing so. Adventure must be contagious.
Josh's portable coffee grinder
Glenn, eager for the pour
Packing up
Leaving our sand bar camp site
Back down the gravel bar
Glad for the big tires
Josh's rig.
We even had some of this...
And back through the mud...

The Toyota guys - Crossing Jim Creek

Upon reaching Jim Creek, we saw that three more days of 45 degree temps had pretty much ruined any chance of crossing on top of the river. We resigned to getting really wet, until two nice guys with Toyota pickups offered to ferry us across the water. We gladly took them up on their generous offer. That’s when all hell broke loose.

Glenn and I piled in the back of the first, with Josh in the second. Holding on for dear life, our truck made it across the deep, rushing river braids, all the while taking photos from inside the bed. Josh’s guy wasn’t so lucky and about halfway through, his truck hit broke through the ice with his front end. I, of course, documented the entire event, while Josh and his truck guy tried to figure out what to do. Our truck guy went back to rescue Josh before returning to help his buddy. We gave them gracious thanks while offering apologies, but the first Toyota guy brushed if off and said, “Oh no worries, he’ll be ok.”

When it became clear to us that the rescue wouldn’t be quite so simple, we three bikers high-tailed it right out of there.


Epilogue - The Lost Memory Card

On Monday morning, eager to start downloading my photos, I popped open my memory card case, and found myself staring at a missing slot. One of my cards was missing, and I quickly deduced that it was the one with all the cool glacier and northern lights photos. Somehow, I’d dropped it out there in the backcountry, somewhere during our last day riding out from the glacier. In all my years as a photographer, I’ve never lost a card on location. And of all the cards, that was a really bad card to lose. Fortunately, I was able to go back and find the card and thus rescue all those glacier and norther lights photos, many of which you just saw.

You can read all about my total freakout and see how I actually recovered the card in this blog post.

I’m thrilled to have done this amazing trip with such fine fellows, and I look forward to future adventures with Glenn & Josh. Thanks to you both for your camaraderie and your friendship, and for being such good photo models. It was also very cool to go on an adventure with two other photographers. The shared passion added an interesting dimension to the experience, even though we kept stopping to take pictures of each other, and took longer to cover all that ground. Plenty of bikers could have ridden the route faster than we did, without getting lost, but for me it’s not about speed, it’s about fun, adventure and exploration.

Be sure and check out Glenn and Josh’s photos of the trip, because they both took some really amazing shots.

Glenn toughs out the last mile of mud.
Footnote: All images shot with the FujiFilm X-T1 camera and processed with Iridient Developer software. Thanks for reading.
Knik Glacier, AK, United States