Denali: Show me some dirt, Oh Great One

An overdue thank you

With my stories and photos, I have tried to show my friends and family in our little, lovely Belgium that the world is a beautiful place. Our tiny country lacks the great wilderness, mountain ranges, oceans and deserts. That is perhaps why, so many times, I have been struck by the power of these natural wonders and have tried to share specifically these feelings with whoever wants to know. I have also tried to shed a different light on common prejudices that we hold about certain countries and cultures along the way. But before I share some more natural wonder with you, I want to take some time to specifically thank the wonderful people that I have met along the way and who have supported me and helped me in so many ways without asking for anything in return.

I am not the person that will easily ask for help. I do not want to be of nuissance. When a person travels for a long time by himself, he becomes very strong and independent. You might think you do not need any help. That is why it is sometimes hard to comprehend that people really want to help you and to accept this help. Thanks to all these people, I have now also become a person that really wants to help others on their way. So to all these people, wherever you are, you know who you are, to you I say, Thank you!

Janet and Robert from Fairbanks are two of those people. Before I had met Janet, she already offered me her help and gave me a lot of info on the ride down the Dalton Highway. So when I finally reached Fairbanks, I was happy to meet them. But before I could enjoy their company, I had to negotiate the endless climb up to their home. Janet and Robert are very interesting people with some amazing stories and a squirrel problem. They live on top of the hill where they build their own log home, cord wood bathhouse, guesthouse and cob oven, overlooking the endless undulating boreal hills of the Interior. A wonderful place to rest up but hard to leave. May we meet again in my neck of the woods.

Looking for a mountain

Does it never get boring? That is one of the questions people sometimes ask me. Well, yes it does. Especially after you have just cycled the Dalton Highway from the Arctic ocean down to Fairbanks, traversing the immense wilderness of the Northern Alaska.

“AAahr, maties! There’s nothing like a good stretch of wild and unpaved road for a two-wheeled land lover!”

But when you start making your way South from Fairbanks, the roads lose their wild character. Gently they meander through the rolling hills of the boreal forest while pavement perfection makes your tires sing. What more could you wish for? But It was on this particular stretch, I got struck by immense boredom. It was just too easy. The ride required no effort, steering or concentration what so ever. In theory I could sleep while doing it but in reality there was always the domestic convoy of monstrous caravans and RV’s to keep me awake.

The size of these “recreational vehicles” is propostrious. In Belgium the Dutch are well known for towing small and cozy caravans wherever they go. But American holiday makers take it to a whole different level. From time to time you will still see a truck towing a gigantic caravan along but if you really want to be respected you do not tow your mobile home, your home tows your car. During holiday season you see massive RV’s the size of touring busses tow cars, boats, ATV’s, motorbikes or just about anything. They also “decorate” the RV with kayaks, canoes, mountainbikes and road bikes but I doubt they are anything more then just decoration. More is more, and less is frowned upon. Although this display of extravangance is amusing, it does not cure me from my boredom.

But as the legendary Dutch soccer player Johan Cruijff said: Every disadvantage has an advantage. Riding my bicycle on autopilot, I have got all the time to observe the Alaskan landscape. And there is a lot of it to observe. The Alaskan boreal forest is truly immense. 126 million acres, 50 million hectares, 193 000 square miles or 500 000 square kilometers to be exact. That is roughly the size of Spain. The Russians call this forest Taiga, which means “the land of the little sticks”. And that is exactly what is, a never-ending expanse of dwarfed spruce trees, each one looking exactly the same as the next. It is a reassurance to see the sheer extent of our planets green lungs first hand but with no change in scenery, I am looking forward with excitement to the roadsigns I see every couple of hours. The one thought that keeps me going however is this: “Dennis, you could be sitting behind a desk right now”. It is amazing what that thought does to a free man. So once again with great amazement, I take in the sight of the endless green ocean, the land of the little sticks.

To keep it interesting however there are two things you can do. Head for the mountains and find some dirt. And that is exactly what I did. I took my Belua for a ride in search of “The Great One”, North America’s highest peak. In order to see Denali or Mount Mckinley as most people know it, I had to navigate a 90 mile dead end gravel road trough bear country. Normally I never turn back or backtrack. “It’s a long road, there’s no turning back“. But for this occasion I decided to make an exception. During the day I hiked and in the evenings I rode my bike late into the night.

The days before I had been ill and had to camp out under a bridge to heal and take shelter from the rain. I still wasn’t feeling great but the sun was shining so I decided to take my chances. The first night on the road was bad. To camp I had to climb a mountain to get out of sight of the road. I had a lot of time to observe the beautiful nightly scene. I was ill again and spend more time outside of my tent rather then in it because of that. In the morning I was feeling miserable but I had to keep moving so I made my way down the hill and started cycling up “the grizzly pass”. Signs on the road warned people not to stray because this is where the bears like to hang out. If anything I would like to keep the pace steady but I was struggeling to move. Not the best place to show weakness. The sign was right. The bears were around but they were digging holes rather then chasing that weakling on a bicycle.

Late into the night I arrived at Wonder Lake, the end of the road.  But nowhere could I see the mountain. South of the Arctic circle, the setting midnight sun paints a vermillion sky before darkness tries to seize the night. A calm breeze brings tranquility to the valley while the silhouettes of spruce trees reflect on the glass like water.  And then The haunting, melancholic wail of the common loon sends shivers down my spine. No man can remain unmoved upon hearing this primal sound of nature. It sets the mood of solitude in the night. With the sound of the loons wailing and yodeling I ride back to the hills where I will camp. In the misty dusk, a moose and her calf almost run me over. And then, just before I reach the hilltop, I drop my bicycle to the ground. Only a short distance away from me, on top of a ridge, a wolf greets me in the night and shows me “The Great One”. In the light of the moon the mountain reveils itself from behind the clouds. Like a giant, a massive snow capped rock formation towers 18 000 feet (5500m!) over the tundra. Like a mountain on top of a mountain, Denali’s rise makes it the most impressive peak I have ever seen. And as soon as he came, the wolf disappears into the night.

Travelling an acient route

After this amazing night, I travelled East and continued on the Denali Highway, a beautiful wilderness ride where modern nomads follow in the footsteps of the first people to set foot on this continent. More then 10000 years ago, nomadic hunters crossed the Bering land bridge between Northeast Asia and Alaska following the animals.  From here and along the Pacific coast, they colonized the Americas. To this day, the area is of great importance for the native Athabascans.

A rough road is all you need to keep the traffic out. So I’ve got this road mostly to myself. And although the roadside offers many beautiful tenting spots with glaciar views, I feel the urge to wander of the path and try to find Butte lake. This tundra lake supposed to be great for fishing and it is only accessible by ATV-trails (Quads).  The 10 mile (16 km) trail climbs up to the high tundra along rocky paths, mud flats, stream beds and sandy beaches. The going is slow, but I love every second of it. Why should I ride mile after boring mile just to do the distance? I do not care about the miles, I care about the ride. This is what I want!

When I finally reached the lake, I found an ATV stuck in the mud just yards away from the cabin. This is not the first time I stumble upon a scene like this. A couple of years ago I found a snowmobile stuck in an icelake in the Bulgarian Rila mountains. After I tried to help the owner to get it out, he gave me a ride to the top of Mount Musala, the Balkan’s highest peak. So I was eager to help again. The ATV belonged to John, an archeologist who was hoping to do some excavations and find some ancient artefacts belonging to the nomadic hunters. He told me there wasn’t much I could do to help. Like a true Alaskan sourdough, he would figure it out. At least he was excavating something.