It’s 6 p.m., the sun is falling behind the snow covered mountains, a bitter northwind is freezing my thinly covered arms, and I still can’t see the crest of this climb.
For the better part of the last 6 hours my legs have been spinning a set of pedals connected to gears that move a chain that in turn spin another set of gears which finally grind my whole back wheel over the three inches of crusty snow.
It’s early October, I’m trying to make it to the high point of a moraine south of Lost Lake.
I knew when I set off on this ride it was going to be rough, and now, I just want it to be over.
The 30 some odd mile Lost Lake Loop, cut into official existence last summer, is living up to all that I have made it out to be.
I launched from the trailhead around noon thirty and set off up the Seward Highway to Bear Lake. Once in the woods the wide ski trail narrowed down, and narrowed down some more, until it finally devolved into a rugged single track trail traversing the steep eastern shore of the lake.
Out in the glass flat water, salmon, small silvers, or pinks I don’t know, are leaping to the surface.
I’m hoping that I won’t find any fish pigs on this ride; it’s not the time of year to hang around with them.
The trail’s pretty nasty, and short sections just aren’t rideable, while others are just a pleasure.
Eventually I arrive at the lake’s northern shore and hook into another ski trail. A long and sometimes un rideably steep climb awaits.
Most sections could be pedaled I suppose, but skinned pine logs jut laterally across the trail in places to drain the intensive rains that fall here, and their surface is smooth and slimy.
My back tire, which already struggles to find traction on the Eastern Kenai Peninsula with it’s relatively low profile tread meant for the more typical dry western single-track conditions, stands no chance at these grades on such a surface.
The long climb makes my heart run hard though, and in the not even 40 degree air, the heat dissipates easily.
Eventually I level out, the trail begins to duck and weave in some places.
Now when I point downhill and see those same wood lined water bars, I feel it, you know, it, climb up the back of my throat.
If my front tire jumps to the side, the resulting impact will be swift.
There’s little to see above me, or side to side, except everything I guess.
For the most part I’m surrounded by a boreal rainforest.
Every so often I notice a small pond, and even less often I’ll cross an open swamp on a long bridge.
Some of the bridges have even been built with steps as they change elevation. My favorite of them all will drop down several decks before climbing back up them. Each flat is at least the length of a bike.
Somewhere in a hollow, I make a drop and in the distance, through murky distance I see an orange and black creature trotting toward me.
It’s a dog, a German Sheppard. I hoot, and not a second later I see the florescent colored jackets of the dog’s two legged companions in tow.
They’re about as surprised to see me as I them.
One shouts, "What a nice day," as I say hello and pass by.
"It sure is," I call back, knowing this could be one of the last like it.
It’s somehow comforting to see them, yet this is a generally unknown trail. Perhaps I’ll see many.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later I know I must be getting closer to Divide, the separation of the massive Snow River drainage and the small creeks that fall to Seward.
The trail is dropping elevation from the ridge I’ve followed, and in a moment of absence, I’ve failed to notice I’m about to roll over a solid foot to foot and a half root drop.
I hit the brakes.
The front wheel drops with a thud into some deep muck and comes to a halt.
In a fraction of a second my back tire comes off the ground and I find myself suspended in this awkward position.
I hold there for a moment, senses I don’t have to control anymore are firing away trying to pull me out of this mess. My left hand is flicking away at the front brake trying to adjust one pivot point while my lower body is gently nudging to the left in an attempt to carefully drop the bike sideways so that it sets back down, off angle, but back on the rear wheel.
Too late, I cross over the point of no return; snap-snap and I click my feet from the pedals and leap forward into the muck, nailing the handlebars on the way down.
Damn, I suck in some wind.
The crash will hurt me more mentally than physically. This is a long ride and I can’t afford to psyche myself out like that, but now my mind is already working on that problem, and trying to figure out how I could have saved that situation.
I guess that’s why I’ve only crashed once this season, right?
Next time though, I need to be on it, and roll that drop with speed; pay attention.
To add to the sudden burst of anxiety a fresh set of grizzly tracks appears on the trail in front of me. They’re pretty good sized.
I heard the highway a few minutes ago, but now I don’t hear it anymore, and the bear seems to be sticking to the trail that I’m buzzing right along.
Around the corner I see a silver object through the trees. It’s the small trailhead and the truck of the same hikers I saw earlier I assume.
I’m pretty happy to be off that trail all of a sudden. It’s already been two hours.
On the side of the highway I sit down and pull out my sandwich.
For nearly five minutes not a single car goes by. Then one does. Then nothing.
I’m on the road now, headed back in the direction I’ve traveled, only to shoot back off, on the west side of the highway now.
I follow an old double track trail for a short ways before it dives back into the forest.
It’s drier here.
The wooden drainages aren’t slick at all. A few of the long bridges are covered in a cold sweat that makes the tires sweep from side to side at points, but it’s much easier going now.
This section will go by faster, but it’s far more draining than the last.
Sometimes just a vertical foot or two, sometimes dozens of vertical feet, will be burned up on a descent, only to have to make it up again, over and over.
The climbs seem to outweigh the descents 5 to 1 though.
There are more lakes in this section too. A few provide glimpses to the snowy mountains where I’m headed.
As I ride along one lake, the tall white stocking legs of a moose catch my eye across the way.
How many moose do I see in a week? I don’t know. They’re more of a nuisance and a safety hazard.
But this one is huge, and in the broken glimpses I get, I see it’s a bull, adorned with a healthy set of antlers.
He’s grazing in a swamp, the last of the autumn leaves shaking around its forested edges and the brown grass waving at snow covered peaks beyond.
It’s too perfect.
He knows I’m here too, making a loud grunt at one point while looking my way.
Why make enemies?
The ride goes on for an hour and change before the trail again begins to make a long descent.
Around a corner I sweep to the junction of the Primrose Trail.
After another break, I begin the long climb to Lost Lake.
It’s quarter after 4 as I leave.
This is the do or die point.
I could have just followed the rest of Primrose back to Kenai Lake and taken the highway back to Seward, or even ridden the last section in reverse.
Now I’m committing to make it the next 14 or so miles back to Seward in the wilderness, come what may, with three and a half hours of daylight and unknown high elevation trail conditions left.
It’s instantly amazing though, the difference between the much older Primrose Trail and the fresh loamy trail I’ve been on for the past few hours.
Sure, the Primrose is steep, and in some sections just unrideable, but for the most part it’s lower section rolls much more smoothly under my tires than anything I've done all day.
Somewhere just below 2,000’ I see my first patch of snow on the side of the trail.
Climbing steadily it doesn’t take long before it consistently coats the ground nearby, but the earth of the trail itself is still snow free for some time.
I eventually hit a fairly long stretch that is too ledgy and steep to ride and requires a good deal of hike-a-bike.
When I finally get out of it, I’m at treeline, and now I’m riding, sometimes on a frozen hard trail, sometimes through a miserable crust snow.
I start to think that I’m making a big mistake.
The snow is horrid. It’s been nuked by the sun, but has now refrozen into a crust that breaks with a loud grinding sound under my front wheel and saps energy from my already destroyed legs.
If things get worse, if my bike breaks down, I’m in real trouble.
I contemplate turning back around. The descent down Primrose won’t be much fun, it’s just a rough drop, and it’ll be too late to take the single track even part of the way back to Seward.
The idea is gone. Whatever. I’ll make it out.
Time seems to slide by slowly in the graying light.
This is normally the fastest part of this ride, other than the speedy drop back down to Seward on the Lost Lake Trail.
In sections, where the trail is snow free, I accelerate.
At one point the tension lifts.
Mud and snow flies from my racing wheels as I ride through this alpine wonderland.
I crash through the icy white and rebuild my speed on the exposed but mostly frozen glacial gravels.
The fun ends eventually.
I finally dip down to the outlet stream of the lake.
The wind is cold as I hoist my bike and walk over the one rail bridge.
On the other side, I feel drained. I lean into the hillside as I try to pull on my arm warmers and a jacket. I need sugars.
I start to eat a protein bar, and as I look around, I see fresh bear tracks in the snow. They look to be black, they’re small. It’s probably a bear looking for a den site.
The wind seems to blow a little stronger, and I suck down some water to soak the dry and unappetizing bar.
It’s been hours since I saw another person. I haven’t heard anything else today besides the sighing of water coming out from the loam as my wheels pressed down upon it, the occasional grunt of the changing gears of my bike and the thoughts in my head.
I bite off another piece and again soak it.
I can’t afford to stand around. I’m wasting heat, but I can’t chew fast enough damnit.
I look again at the bear tracks. I won’t see anyone else today I think, maybe real close to the bottom of the trail, but that will be it. It’s too late.
Ten minutes later I’m at the halfway point between Primrose and Lost Lake trailheads, and squarely at the bottom of the long climb up the moraine.
The climb is always a long one, deceiving in height, but it’s smooth and steady when it’s not covered in snow.
This time, it will take a good ten minutes, but I’ll pedal its entirety, despite winter’s attempt to keep me from doing so.
I don’t care anymore. I don’t know what it is my body is burning. I don’t know why I keep going. I don’t even know why I do this stuff in the first place.
I do know though, that not a half hour after I pull over the top of this moraine, I’ll be back down at my car, and there, I’ll just wish that I could do it all over again.