Sunday, July 7, 2013

Resurrecting the Devil's Johnson

(NOTE: this ride occurred June 29)
The concept for R the D’s J loop, a 90-mile link-up of Resurrection, Devils, and Johnson pass trails was Adam’s. We have long discussed and ridden different connectors that link-up sections of Kenai Epics, but this one is particularly special.

Johnson’s season typically lasts for 2-3 weeks from mid June to early July thanks to copious amounts of persistent snow quickly succeeded by dense cow parsnip growth on the trail’s north end.

Meanwhile, Devils Pass and Res are usually ridable in their lower sections from early June on, but their ~2,500+-foot passes are rarely free of snow until late June, at best.

To link these trails up without having to ride through 6-foot tall vegetation on Johnson or hike-a-bike over snow fields in Devils or Res passes requires a certain bit of luck and a weather anomaly.

We got it this year.

One of the hottest Junes on record has melted out the passes, but the lack of rain has kept the trails dry and the plants parched and unable to kick into photosynthetic overdrive.

Unfortunately, Adam could not join me for this long day as he was on diaper detail for the weekend; and it turns out his fall last week may have resulted in a broken bone in his hand.

I was bummed for him, and for myself, in not having company. I rode the loop “solo,” in quotes because, of course, it was not like I didn’t see anyone.

The loop warranted counter-clockwise routing, so that the two segments of pavement would be ridden “downhill,” in quotes as this is the Kenai, downhills feature plenty of uphill. Overall though, I knew I wanted to coast the roads as much as possible and get them out of the way.

This left me with two questions: full-suspension or hard tail; and where to start?

I opted for the former on rig choice, even though I knew the latter would be especially nice on the road sections and the long climb up the north side of Res. I was less concerned about my legs' endurance than the many other little muscles needed to ride, and having a rig that would forgive me for taking bad lines instead of bucking me into the tundra was a feature I have found to be invaluable on other long rides.

For a start point, I initially thought I would launch from the north Johnson TH, and begin the day with the 28-mile road ride to Hope, the idea being: “Eat your mushy peas first.”

I’m glad I instead opted to start and end this ride from Dave and Sharon’s (for sale) cabin. Hitting Johnson Pass north-bound in the AM while I was fresh let me ride this more technical and sometimes rough trail cleanly. I think starting it at mile 70 of the ride instead of mile 2 might have yielded a different experience.

Comparatively, starting my day with a long road ride on a mountain bike not made to be ridden in one position for a long time could have caused me to lock up. Instead, I hit the road section very well warmed up, though I still had to stretch out on the bike every 5 minutes or so.

I was also worried about how my mental state would influence my decision-making if I rode by the cabin for a water refill 2/3 the way through. I knew finding an excuse to pull the bail lever and quit would be easy. The reverse logic was that if I had a major mechanical, I would not have had an easy way out.

A small side benefit of starting from the cabin was not having to drive anywhere on Saturday as I came down Friday evening.

I pushed off from the cabin’s deck a few minutes after 9. Temps were in the low 60s and the humidity felt thick. Low-slung clouds clung to the tops of all the peaks, and a few hinted dark blue like they might let out a little drizzle.  Everything from the parked cars, the vegetation, to my glasses sported a layer of moisture.

I started the ride by humming south down the Seward Highway a few miles, the 2.25 Maxxis CrossMarks singing their tune on a mostly empty road.

The south Johnson Pass Trail head was deserted of hikers or bikers, though a trail crew was laying out their tools across the lot in preparation for a day’s labor. I stopped next to the sign in, logged my name, and with a loud slam, shut the wooden box shut.

The sound of the beginning of a ride.

In the woods, Friday’s misty rains left most the overgrowth droopy and wet, though the actual trail surface ranged from damp to dry.

The start of the ride gave me a sensation of deja vous to the summer of 2004, when I spent many weekends doing long solo rides stitching together segments of trails in the Green Mountains. The mileage was less than, but the hours were about the same, the weather: New England summer gray and muggy; and I usually saw few people. Even though I knew the trails then, the closed, gray world, ever present threat of rain, and pressing need to keep going, often left me feeling vulnerable, I don’t know why.

In the forests beside Upper Trail Lake, continually getting slapped in the face by wet alders, my visibility and ability to project sound were limited. Here, large animals roam, and that sense of vulnerability was still there.

The wet veg doesn’t just limit my visibility, it slathers my bike and legs in water like a brush car wash. In this wash though, the bike won’t get cleaner, and my shoes fill with water as it runs down my legs.

It’s not a great way to start a day in the saddle, and the lack of a breeze and high humidity causes sweat to pour down my face.

I count the climbs and descent to Johnson Creek crossing, and then begin the sustained climb to tree line.

Emerging from the woods, I find that the trail is getting drier, and the temp cooling off.

I power on toward the pass, but catch glimpses of thick clumps of lupine blooming in the gravel islands of the stream next to the trail.

These lucky plants, who have habituated a fickle landmass, have scored this year. If they make it to seed, they will have flourished in what has otherwise been a dim summer for most wildflowers.

In the lakes, the grayling are rising furiously to gobble up some unknown hatch. The dimples on the water would suggest a light rain might be falling, but its just the hungry fish.

Up and over the Pass, no stopping, I start to build a little bit of speed in the smooth sections.

The wet veg is still soaking my rotors though. Johnson is a mixture of fast, smooth trail, broken by technical features; read: build up speed, hit the brakes, rinse, repeat. My braking power is reduced as a result, and on some of the longer downhill runs I start lightly feather the levers to keep the rotors dry and reactive without scrubbing speed.

Almost ¾ the way through the trail I still havn’t seen another person, on foot or bike, and I start to wonder if maybe the clouds are keeping people away.

Maybe a mile later I come across my the first group of south-bound riders.

Suddenly, I hit what feels like a good deal of traffic headed in the other direction.

I try to start making noise, but I’m being a classic jerk, and nearly collide with at least one rider. He had the right of way, but my mentality is fixed on my long journey and an interest in going fast. Some of today’s miles will go slowly whether I like it or not, so I want the fast ones to go by quickly. I know, it’s me, me, me.

I hit the two patches of snow. They’re steep on one side, but so hard packed, that after kicking toe-hold steps up to their bumpy surface, I can ride atop them.

I have to stop though. I find a 1-square-foot patch of earth sitting right side up atop the snow with the a small alpine flow in bloom.


These slides were huge. Good-sized ricks are intermixed with the snow. The destruction is awesome, but I can’t help but admire that somehow, this tiny little patch of the mountain was ripped down, dragged, beaten, and buried, only to emerge and flower, hardly worse for the wear, but a few 1,000 feet lower than it was 6 months ago.

The enviro-dork in me still finds a lot of magic here.
I hit the north trail head, stop at the register, and sign out: “Pass through 12:00,” I write.

Sharon and Dave know my route. Normally one does not sign out of a trail register they did not sign into, but this way I figure, should something happen, at least there is a breadcrumb trail marking my progress and where I last was.

“Slam!” The register box shuts and I rip through the parking lot, down the road, and out onto the paved trail that parallels the highway.

With a gradual downhill, I can cruise at about 15 MPH, and hit 20 in a few places, but only a couple miles from the TH, I wheel off to the Granite Creek Campground to refill my Camelbak bladder at the water pump.

The mosquitoes are vicious, and rip me apart as I try to repack my bag. I manage to get my pizza sandwich out before I get pedaling again, eating half of it as I ride back out. The bugs are making it easy to be efficient.

The bike path to Hope Junction has been swept clean of gravel since I was here a month ago on my road bike, not that it matters on fat tires.

Strangely, I watch a road biker pass me, riding on the shoulder of the highway.

Even though the shoulders of the Seward in this section are generally wide, I appreciate the distance from the cars and trucks zooming by at 70, and can’t imagine why someone else wouldn’t

As I head down Hope Highway, I notice two other road bikers standing at the junction, and maybe I would have forgotten them, but about halfway from the junction and my turn-off, they pass me, though fairly slowly.

After a couple second pause, I decided to up my pace a tad and suck their wheels.

I ride behind them for maybe 30 seconds to see if they change their pace, and when they don’t, I ask if they mind if I ride in their draft.

They give me funny look, but say something to the effect of OK.

I can’t blame them. Here’s this guy, riding alone on the road on a full suspension mountain bike with big knobby tires, fenders, and a Camelbak pack. I’m a little out of place to say the least.

I better redeem myself, so I ask them where they started today, and they say Anchorage.

“Wow! That’s awesome!,” I respond.

“What about you?” They ask.

“Moose Pass…”

The conversation ensues, and they are equally impressed on my route, though I assure them that riding Anchorage to Hope to Anchorage in a day easily tops my plans.

They are mountain bikers too, but they are putting in one last long ride before riding the Fireweed in two weeks. We chat the rest of the way to the turn off to Resurrection Road, and the miles fly by as I enjoy a slightly ticked up pace at reduced physical effort.

I can’t remember their names, but it’s a reminder of the camaraderie one can find in perfect strangers where the common bond is two wheels.

On the flat, straight stretch parallel to the Hope runway I finish off the rest of my pizza, and roll into the Res Pass lot a few minutes later.

There’s a few people mulling around, but I don’t have time to linger. I sign in at the register: “Pass through, 2:00 PM.”


It’s taken two hours to ride the 28 miles from Johnson’s north TH to here, with a stop for water and the unplanned scenic trip around the Granite Creek campground looking for the water (Note: when the road splits into a loop, go left.)

I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about the north side of Res Pass.

It’s 7 miles-ish to the Resurrection Creek crossing. The riding up to that point is pretty smooth, and even flowy in a few sections.

After that, it’s physical and mental pain and suffering.

The flat, straight, rooty sections with no views blow, and the short descents to the numerous creek crossing might be fun, if I didn’t know I would have to climb steeply out of each one.

I’m draining more and more.

I finally hit East Creek, an hour and half since I started Res. I don’t want to stop, but I know I need to eat, and could use a few minutes out of the saddle. I mow down a Clif Builder bar and pace back and forth across the bridge.

The walking is actually nice for my lower back and hip flexors, and after a few minutes I feel refreshed.

Here we go, the last major climb of the day.

I sweat heavily. I’m running on a flat speed. There’s no aux power at this point. If I need extra juice to get over a steep pitch, I have to get out of the saddle.

At some point, a bee flies into my face, and momentarily becomes trapped between my glasses frame and brow.

I shake my head wildly, yelling, but afraid to swat.

I caught a bee once in the same spot on a road ride. That one stung. For some reason, this one flew away without doing so.

The rush of adrenaline is nice, and for some reason, now all I can think about is the scene from Tommy Boy where Chris Farley and David Spade employ the bee technique to avoid a ticket.

Crazy person laughing by himself on a bike, but it keeps me chugging away until I start to get out of tree line.

The steady breeze and temps in the high 50s have made riding pleasant again, and it helps to have the bulk of the climbing out of the way.

The trail up here is as good as reported: hard packed like concrete.

I’m about to ride right by the marker at the pass, when randomly, my front fender pops off.

Strange coincidence, but I take it as a sign, pull out a camera and a multi-tool, and snap a few pics of the gray world before fixing the fender and riding on.

When I hit the Devils Pass Trail junction its tempting to carry on down Res, but I hang a left and descend.

I’m hammering the downhills hard today.

I don’t know if it’s a good idea, but it feels great.

At Devils Lake, one large patch of snow covers the trail.

From here on out, there are only a few very small patches left over from drifts, and its easy to ride through them with a little speed.

The descent starts, and I open up the suspension and begin to let gravity take over, and take me home.

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