A group of runners from all across the United States gathered together in The Last Frontier during the summer of 2017. Beginning in Anchorage and ending in Fairbanks, we initially set off on a side trip southbound to spectate at the Mt. Marathon races in Seward. On the way there were plenty of opportunities to run trails throughout small regions of the Chugach and upon our arrival the race proved to be as rugged as it was inspirational. The group then traveled north again with stops in Palmer and Denali State Park, ultimately heading toward Fairbanks where our good friends and trip hosts lived, Ben, Jake, Christina and little Sawyer Turman.
L.A., apparently that's how Alaskan's elsewhere in the state refer to their capital city. So it was with some surprise that within an hour of our flight's landing we encountered a black bear and its cub chasing a moose and its cub, only for those roles to reverse a minute later and all of this within the heart of our campsite on the edge of town while Ben lectured us on best practices when encountering wildlife. Black fight back, brown lie down, moose ... run. Seemed even the black bear knew of this rule, sort of. Los Anchorage, you say? I guess standards and conditions vary from place to place.
We walked the streets of downtown well into the midnight sun while drinking beers and eating ice cream, then eventually picked up another member of our crew once their late night flight arrived and settled back into camp.
Next day more of our company arrived at the airport. Once rendezvoused we were off for a taster of things to come, a quick run into the mountains immediately outside of the city. It was a relatively quick out n back route on a wide, double track gravel road of a trail, but we still managed to continue our wildlife streak by crossing paths with several moose. One in particular was a bull, aggressive and blocking our return path. However, with mild difficulty bushwhacking around it we did manage to get by.
Next stop, the Chugach Mountains and Mount Marathon in Seward.
Of all the places our limited range allowed us to visit, the Chugach Mountains most felt true to how I imagined Alaska. Lush greens filling glacially carved valleys with a myriad of intertwined tributaries flowing toward the sea. This place was fun.
The group separated into two parties the first day and I opted for the lesser miles with Katy, Christina and Sawyer. Christina took us West, toward Portage Lake and Whittier. Our hike for the day was a two mile trek up to the foot of Bryan Peak and the Bryan Glacier. Even though it was less than five thousand feet high, all of that height came directly up from sea level and thus was as mountainous as any cascade volcano. My desire was to climb it and I became admittedly lost in thought at the prospect for awhile. The cold began to creep in on us and I was content to have only seen the mountain when we set off on our return to the trail head. It was a restful outing.
We found the rest of our party back at a dispersed campsite near the crook of Turnagain Arm. Fish was on the grill and friends were swimming in the lake. The camaraderie felt good.
With a little consultation the group then decided a plan for the following day, a point to point journey past Lost Lake, starting at the Primrose trail head. Conditions on trail proved wet and drab, but we still had good views of the lake and valleys below.
Pulling into the flood plains of the exit glacier for another night of dispersed camping was like entering the scene of campers at a festival, or perhaps just a big race. True enough there was a big race the next day, Mount Marathon. Feeling tired from the Lost Lake run we had just finished I was eager to get the tent setup and establish a private space for Katy and me to call our own. Then with a final look of admiration at my surroundings I put in earplugs to drown out the festive fireworks and closed my eyes.
Early the next morning we were all eager to get into Seward, have some coffee and watch the race. The race had its usual carnage, although I never got too close and personal with it. It was separated into three categories: kids, women, and men. After watching the women, and seeing Alaska local Allie Ostrander take the win in muddy fashion, I had a chance to hike up near the waterfall cliffs and chat with two of the safety medics. I didn't ask them many questions, but mostly looked in appreciation at the obstacle so many runners quite nearly huck themselves off when making the final portion of their descent.
The men came next. I stayed low at the foot of the mountain and was happy to see the first place guy smiling and looking so relaxed. I later found out he was another Alaska local, Scott Patterson, and he too took the win.
When the dust had settled we walked the town and found a pub.
It was one in the morning under the twilight aura of summer night on the 64th parallel when a shaken man stood blocking the exit with a rifle pointed at my face. Bears and moose are one side of Alaska, this would seem to be the other. I was sitting in the drivers seat of a minivan filled with women and one infant attempting to stay calm and collected in my communication to the man. It took time, but we eventually came to terms with one another. Upon hearing Katy, Christina and Alison chatting about our circumstance, and Sawyer crying in the back seat, the man began to soften a good deal. Soon he was cordially giving us directions to our intended stop and forgiving us the trespass on his land.
Much earlier in this day, so much earlier in fact that it was technically the beginning of the previous day, our group was delightedly spectating at Mount Marathon in Seward. When we finally packed up to leave, the day was what one would normally call, coming to a close. By roughly 9 pm we were back in Anchorage. Once more the group separated from here, one half heading north to a friend's peony farm in Palmer for the night, the other awaiting the flight of one last member to arrive before reconnecting. The reconnecting was where our trouble began. With hand written directions to our destination we had taken a wrong turn onto a neighboring farm. Thirty minutes of being lost on this farm was enough for the owner in his high perched home to decide we were up to no good. The rest has already been told.
On our sixth day in Alaska we perused the peony farm and yurt, then were taken on a trip up one of Palmer's local peaks, Lazy Mountain. Temperatures were now much higher, given we were deeper into the Alaskan interior, but this came as a welcome change. The steep trails too lent a helping hand at giving us a good sweat and the boys, Joey Nunes and Paul Moores took it upon themselves to up the stakes by hauling bowling ball sized rocks up to the summit. A little push back against the forces of time I suppose.
If there were only one day on to have blue skies on our trip to Alaska it would be during a traverse of Kesugi Ridge in Denali State Park. It's a rare thing to have, but we got it. Still, there are trade offs. It is exposed and can get hot, and despite being in such a wet area there isn't a lot of water sources to filter from across this 30 mile plateau. No complaints, though. We made the best of this point to point run. The expansive views into the untamed vastness of Denali National Park were unceasingly unbeatable. That preserved landscape is true wilderness, the kind of place to test the fortitude of even the most skilled and prepared of us. The state park was tame by comparison and for more than once this trip I was perfectly content with simply taking in the sights.
Our road trip was beginning to come to an end. Many of us wanted it to continue, and yet I believe our hearts were collectively deeply content. In our final hours of play a relaxed mood took us on a few final whimsical journeys around the Fairbanks area. Racing the Ester Dome Ass Kicker 10K and floating down the Tanana River proved a complimentary close to an adventurous week in what really is a golden land.
There was much to process as we boarded our flight home and one thought stood out amongst all the others: When and where would the next running road trip take place?