Alaska's Lost Coast, Pt 1

Editor's note:  Brett Davis is a Bedrock- and Salsa-sponsored athlete, a Durango local, a good friend, and a hell of an adventurer.  He does some big adventure every summer.  This year it was the Lost Coast of Alaska.  Here, he recounts his trip for our benefit.  Watch for Part 2, coming soon!

POSTED BY GUEST BLOGGER: BRETT DAVIS - Dim grey light filtered through the un-boarded window. Flecks of recently disturbed dust hung illuminated in the air like snowflakes floating under a lone street lamp. The rain tapped out a consistent rhythm on the cabin’s metal roof. It was relentless. Five weary and disheveled men sat around a large cluttered table covered with the Knick knacks of the cabin’s previous inhabitants and the remnants of their own recently consumed meal. Just over a week’s worth of hard work was etched in their weather beaten faces. A fire crackled in a wood stove bringing warmth to the men’s bone chilling day. Rain jackets, dry suits, wool socks, base layers and gloves filled the air space around the stove. Drip. Drip. Water droplets fell to the cabin’s thread bare carpet.

Some of the men were lost in thought, staring contemplatively into the beam of light which burned its presence into the center of the table. Others were bantering back in forth, breaking the somber mood of their surroundings. Whether conversing in their minds or among each other, each man was justifying to themselves the decision. The decision to end their journey early. These men were not used to making such choices. In the group were some of the world’s most accomplished at suffering. Used to willing themselves forward through adversity. A legendary pioneer of Alaska exploration. A 24-hour mountain bike race Hall of Famer. A continual finisher and record setter of perhaps the most grueling of all bike events, the Iditabike. An endurance Phenom who’s takes on any challenge and makes it look attainable for any aspiring athlete do to his unassuming and easy manner.   

The decision was the correct one. The conditions had determined their fate. The route would not go without the added safety margin of good weather. For these men, a little rain, wind, and cool temperatures, were not justifiable reasons for ending. They had endured far worse in their adventure lives. What they had been undertaking for the past eight days was not of the ordinary. To bike and pack raft from the small Alaskan fishing village of Cordova to the remote settlement of Yakutat isn’t something that is taken on with regularity. The northern “Lost Coast” route was first pioneered in reverse in 2008 by hard men Eric Parsons and Dylan Kentch. These two visionaries battled the elements for over 20 days finally riding into Cordova completely exulted in what they had accomplished and witnessed along the route. A handful of other hardy adventures have endured the endless miles of soft beach riding; the cold and swift crossings of creeks and rivers tumbling unimpeded from some of our continent’s largest glaciers to the moody Gulf of Alaska; the treacherous paddles across miles of open water bays filled with house sized blocks of ice from the calving glaciers; not to mention encounters with the imposing Alaskan brown bear or a crazed moose. Add in the ever variable and unpredictable weather of the region and one can easily understand why so few take on such an undertaking.

Our group of five, departed Cordova under sunny skies. It actually felt hot as bikes were built outside of the tiny Alaskan Airlines air station. A few quips about having traveled all of the away from Colorado to only have failed to escape the heat were made as we took our first pedal strokes down a parched gravel road. After 15 miles of dusty riding we crossed the first braid of the Copper River. Our nation’s 10th largest river drains a massive 24,000 square miles—an area the size of West Virginia. The first crux of the route was to negotiate its 50 mile delta and make our way to the fat bike rideable sands of the coast. The delta is an ecological wonder. Home to prolific runs of wild salmon, millions of shore birds, and a variety of sea life including seals, sea lions, and otters who feed, play and bask among the delta’s glacier silt waters and sand bars.

With an ever engulfing fog rolling silently in from the coast, we transitioned from big tires, to our feet and finally to floating in our small Alpacka rafts to negotiate the delta. With the fading light of the day reflecting off of a full moon, we paddled blindly towards an island which would be our first night’s camp. Having failed to bring headlamps along on this adventure (because after all, who needs a head lamp in the land of the midnight sun in the middle of the summer?) and after having committed to beginning our traverse of the delta at 7 PM in the evening, we were woefully unprepared for it getting dark at 10 PM—let alone the impenetrable fog which further obscured our lines of sight. Landing on the beach of the island, we reveled in our luck. Our weather was phenomenal and we would not be spending the upcoming hours of darkness drifting aimlessly as a group towards the open ocean.

Our first full day of the trip began with more fog as we continued our navigation of the delta. The grey horizon melted into the featureless waters of the river. Determining what was up or down was only helped by the bright colors of our rafts as we paddled and waded into the nothingness. By mid-day we could begin to discern the close proximity of the open ocean. The tide was out, but the roar of surf was clearly audible from miles away. We did not want to get pushed out to sea. Utilizing sand bars revealed by the low tide for protection against the surf, we landed on the coast, having safely overcome the route’s first challenge.

It felt good to spin the cranks. The sand easily supported our fat tires. Taking advantage of the holding weather, we took numerous breaks to document our good fortune to be in such a beautiful and wild place. The whir and beeps of our cameras honing in on the majestic landscape of surf, sand, and mountain radiated in our ears. Occasionally, our pedaling rhythm was interrupted by what has been coined a “disaster style” water crossing. Essentially, we would come to an unavoidable crossing from one sand bar to the next. The crossings were typically void of any disrupting current and anywhere from 25 to 75 yards in width. They were too deep to wade, so inflating our pack rafts was a must. Instead of breaking down our bikes with wheels off and snuggly securing them to our rafts, the technique was to plop the raft down and lay the fully intact bike on it. Jumping into the raft we would start our paddle across the wet expanse with our bikes and ourselves balanced precariously. If we made a wrong move, we could have found ourselves in the drink with our big tires floating next to us. Eventually, our technique evolved into strapping our packs onto the bow of the rafts, with our bikes on top of the packs. Once on the other side of a crossing, we would simply hoist the pack with the attached pack raft onto our backs and begin riding to the next crossing. To the unknowing onlooker (of which there were none), we would have appeared to be a bunch of junk shows.

And so our day progressed as we made our way down the coast. After an uneventful evening in a National Forest cabin, we began the “Game of Tides.” With our beach abutting up against a series of rocky headlands, we had to plan our arrival to such points when the tide was at its lowest. To go up and over the headlands would have been a torturous bushwhacking affair. Rather, with a low tide we could hike-a-bike through the tide pools, kelp, and wet rocks to the next portion of beach. At each such spot on the map, we managed to time it such that we had little trouble in overcoming these potential obstacles. Little did we know, our game of cat and mouse with the pull of the moon would be in play for the remainder of our trip.   Stay tuned for Part 2...

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