I'm glad to be back on the road, but sorry to once again be leaving Anchorage. Over the years each time I leave I wonder why, but when Jan and I visited in November, 1997 for friends' wedding anniversary I was jerked back to reality. It was cold, around ten degrees, and dark, as Anchorage is below seven hours of daylight in late November. In short, a great excuse to visit Maui, Palm Springs or Mazatlan, and a vivid reminder why we moved to Seattle in 1984. But I still love it, and firmly believe our ties with Anchorage will get stronger rather than weaker over the coming years.
Randy has decided to ride with us as far as Gakona Junction on the Richardson Highway, then will head north for a trip across the gravel Denali Highway and two days in the national park around Mt. McKinley. He will arrange to ship his bike back, and will fly home to Denver from Anchorage.
We meet Eric and Julia at our appointed espresso shop on the east side of town for a 9 A.M. departure. Our old nemesis rain is back, and we are all in foul weather gear as we head north on the Glenn Highway. Eric assures us the weather will improve when we reach the Matanuska Valley in just thirty-five miles, and he proves to be a prophet. As if on cue, when we round the curve at Eklutna the rain stops and the clouds begin to lift. We can at least see the closest of the many mountains of the Chugach and Talkeetna Ranges that box in the valley on the north and east. We are under way.
Eric and Julia are out in front. Randy follows behind with Jan and me. We jockey for position with the cars, trucks and RVs headed north, because on this twisting road, if you don't pass them now you can follow them for hours. For the next sixty miles the Glenn Highway follows the winding course of the Matanuska River, sometimes at the river's edge, and other times on cliffs 500 feet high with dizzying views of the valley below and the spectacular Chugach Mountains to the east, just two or three miles distant.
I've both driven and ridden this road many times before, and I understand the sidecar will slow us down as we wind through the many twists and turns and mountain passes. I haven't given Jan fair warning about the road as I know it will only make her nervous and she needs a few hours to regain her riding skills. She has taken a week off and will surely be a bit rusty. My crystal ball works well this time, and between the narrow, winding road and two lengthy construction sites, we are almost four hours getting to Eureka Lodge, just 120 miles north of Anchorage. Along the way we peer down on the Matanuska Glacier, perhaps one thousand feet below us, radiant in the mid-day sunshine. It is a unique and beautiful scene.
As the highway rises to meet Sheep Mountain Pass I notice the first touches of yellow on the birch trees, and on the higher slopes of the Chugach peaks patches of red have begun to appear in the mountain meadows. I note that the low-bush cranberries are starting to turn. It's early August and the short Alaska summer is wrapping up. Within two or three weeks the snow geese will follow us south.
We are surprised when Eric and Julia are not waiting for us at Eureka Lodge, our appointed stop, but Randy insists we passed them fifty miles back; stopped for coffee before the worst of the road construction. Fifteen minutes turns into a half-hour and then forty-five minutes. They are never late, always first in, and I am ready to activate our emergency procedures for the first time (each party calls my Seattle voice mail after a two-hour absence) when they show up an hour after us. They have been badly delayed by the roadwork.
As we eat lunch I wonder how many times I have stopped at Eureka Lodge over the years. While there are at least five other gas stops and restaurants within twenty miles north or south on the Glenn Highway, I always stop at Eureka. It is usually about a two and one-half hour drive north of Anchorage, and its time for coffee, gas and a restroom. I've been doing it for over thirty years now. It appears many people agree because while the other lodges along this stretch of the highway seem to hang on by their fingernails, Eureka always seems to prosper. By the way, the pie is good too.
We dodge the frost heaves (large bumps in the road a result of the underlying permafrost freezing and thawing) over the seventy-five miles between Eureka Lodge and Gakona Junction, and enjoy vistas across broad valleys to the east as first the Nelchina then the Tazlina Glaciers flow west from the Chugach Mountains as great rivers of ice. The size of Alaska's many ice fields and the great number of her glaciers are difficult to describe. The Matanuska Glacier is perhaps five miles wide and forty miles long; the Malaspina by itself is larger than Rhode Island. I will note that outside of Greenland and the two Polar Caps, it is the largest concentration of ice fields in the World. You simply must visit them to comprehend their beauty and immensity.
We arrive in Gakona Junction all too soon and say our good-byes to Randy. He has been great company for the past three weeks and I wish he was joining us on the Inside Passage, but his decision to fly home from Anchorage was made months ago. We wish him well on the rest of his trip, and remind him that we'll welcome his company on the ride to Panama.
Our goal has changed from sightseeing to boarding the ferry on Monday in Haines, so we pass by our intended night's destination of Mentasta Lodge to ride the added sixty miles into Tok, where we find familiar surroundings at John and Jill's Cleft of the Rock B&B.
We have come 3,920 miles from Seattle.
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