Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cruisin' Alaska with CycloMonkey, Part 1

When it’s summer in this part of California, you look for someplace to cool off. This summer, the family vacation plan is a cruise to Alaska. Having long since reached the point where our teenage son preferred his independence from the parental unit, we agreed he could bring a friend. And despite an askance look from my one and only, I brought along a friend, too: CycloMonkey.
Without a valid passport, CycloMonkey had to keep a low profile since we would be in international waters and spend one day in a Canadian port. As you frequent readers know, he’s comfortable around cycling gear so he stowed away with my helmet, shoes and other cycling gear. That forced him into the trunk of the limousine, through the x-ray at baggage check and up the service elevator to our state room on the Golden Princess. After that, it was a normal vacation – as if a floating hotel the size of a small city can be considered normal. Yes, CycloMonkey was more than a little concerned that a gust of wind might sweep him off the balcony and out to sea. And no, sea sickness is not a problem for someone with fluffed up cotton in his stomach. For him, a comfortable monotony set in with the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean sliding by at a pokey 25mph. After two and a half days, we pulled up to the docks in Alaska’s capital, Juneau, on the 4th of July.

Wikipedia says that Juneau has a population of around 33,000 people which is tiny even compared to most Bay Area suburbs. It really can’t get much bigger because there isn’t enough flat ground for people to live on; the mountains rise up almost immediately from the sea. This happens to also be southeast Alaska which means it is technically a temperate rain forest and it was quite warm while we were there. Immediately after disembarking and skirting the tacky touristy area, we walked over to the local bike shop, Cycle Alaska, where I had reserved a proper road bike for the afternoon. For a moment, it looked like several rounds of Alaskan Amber were in my future when I saw the “closed on July 4th” sign in the window. But only the storefront was closed, the rental portion was open for us tourists. Hoping for a 56cm carbon Cervelo RCA, I faced the reality of a 58cm aluminum Trek 1-Series. Either that or have my knees bump my elbows on a 52cm version, so okay. Surprisingly, it fit well enough and I even had to raise the seat a couple centimeters. The reach wasn’t too bad, it shifted well, standard cassette, brakes are good, tires fair.
The nice young lady who set up the bike seemed enamored with CycloMonkey. What’s not to like? She knew the route that I had planned, but then again there are only so many paved roads and they only go so far. Despite being on the continent, not an island, there are no roads to or from Juneau – it’s just too rugged. She said I’d be fine and not to worry if I returned after closing time, just call and she’ll come back. Cool, one less worry. I tucked CycloMonkey into the handlebar bag and headed over the bridge to Douglas Island while my wife walked downtown looking for the capitol building and Sarah Palin’s old place. No, you cannot see Russia from here. Within a brief few minutes I was away from civilization and looking for my sole left turn. Eaglecrest Ski Area is on Douglas Island and the entry road up the mountain serves as the local bike club’s time trial course in the summer months. No KOM for me and my monkey today but it was a good, refreshing climb.
CycloMonkey was oblivious to the mortal danger lurking behind any tree, but I was worried about bears. Oh sure, attacks are rare but I didn’t want to become a statistic. If the chances are one in a billion, I still don’t want to be the one. I had asked, and the advice was not to run (or ride downhill like a scared rabbit in my case) and not to yell which would be counter to my natural instinct. Instead, I’m supposed to stop and let them finish whatever they are doing (eating tourists?) and talk to them like they were a four-year-old child, “Hello nice Mr. Bear, how are you? I’m just out here riding my bicycle. I’m not dangerous.” Yeah, right. A four-year-old meat-eating monster, twice my height and four times as hungry with big fangs, bigger claws, bad breath and spraying drool as he roars “I’m hungry!” Okay, maybe those last bits are like some four-year-olds. Fortunately, despite the densely wooded wilderness there were no bear sightings today. I’m sure the relative heatwave (mid-70s) helped my cause. And Fish Creek didn’t look like it had many fish.
Ascending, the view was mostly trees and more trees and blue skies with fluffy white clouds. Very few cars. No cyclists. No other monkeys. I got my heartrate up; it was a good hill. I slid my arm warmers down. I started to do the math and try to recall how long this hill actually was. Another false flat? Finally, signs of a summit. At the parking lot for the ski lodge, we stopped and looked around a bit. There were some other tourists collecting around some rental mountain bikes. I recognized the tour guide from Cycle Alaska. They headed up the trails; I headed back down the paved road. Descending, the view offered some distant snow-capped mountains, hanging glaciers and glimpses of Gastineau Channel. I had plenty of time so we turned left at the main road in search of the pavement’s end. It’s really quite stunning wherever you look. Photos do not do it justice. The day was perfect. The calm waters were filled with boaters enjoying the holiday and enjoying the freakishly long day of sunshine (sunrise 4am, sunset 10:30pm). The 4th of July fireworks here are set off at midnight, the preceding night, because that’s about when it’s finally dark enough.

Finally, we ran out of pavement and turned around. The sights were just as amazing in the other direction. CycloMonkey was speechless. Rather than give in to my normal predisposition for arriving early, we headed back up Fish Creek Road toward Eaglecrest again. Oh, what was I thinking? I’m on vacation; this is no time for suffering up a 10% grade for the fun of it. Perhaps if I had that Cervelo, but no. However, two things were interesting on this second climb to the first false-flat: another cyclist that I was able to catch up to (ego boost), and a unicyclist coming down the hill (this is Alaska, it’s different up here). Alas, no photo-evidence of either – just trust me.
Back down the hill, around the island, over the bridge and back to Cycle Alaska where Laura (or was it Briana?) was working at her laptop in the ever-midday sun by the garage door. They aren’t paying me to say this, but I recommend Cycle Alaska if you’re ever up this way. I took my pedals back, showed her these CycloMonkey photos and then walked the half-mile back toward the docks. With CycloMonkey safely tucked in my backpack, my wife and I headed to the famous Red Dog Saloon and its sawdust floor for a very enjoyable Alaskan Amber.

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