“You’re taking a gun right?”
I looked at my neighbor and confidently said, “Of course.”
Now at the start of my first ever bikepacking trip, it seemed a good idea to learn to shoot my new Smith & Wesson pistol.
I had never biked with a gun before. I used to mountain bike long distances. We’d cover 80 miles of bear country with only a can of bear spray and my singing voice. Within a mile of the trailhead, however, you’d see even children packing heat. It always felt like that last mile was the most dangerous part of our ride.
I was headed into Wrangell St. Elias National Park, the largest park in the United States. My goal was to bike and camp along the Nabesna Road, a 42 mile gravel road through gorgeous Alaska country.
I met a local in Slana to leave my valuables with. As I followed the directions to her place, I came to a sign that said, “We don’t call 911.” She told me to call her when I made it to the gate. I didn’t have any service.
Not seeing a way around it, I decided to drive through the scary gate and see if she was there. At the end of the road was a cabin. A “Don’t Tread on Me” flag was hanging in the window.
I knocked on the door. No answer. Knocked louder, still no answer. There was a suburban in the yard, so I assumed someone was there, but for all I knew, I was at a strangers house who may not like me being there.
I started to drive back, hoping I’d find service closer to town, when I ran into the local Slana gal.
She took one look at the bike in the back of my old Subaru and said, “You know the bears are waking up and hungry right?”
Yes, I did.
She double checked I was carrying a gun, but I was too ashamed to ask her to show me how to use it. I figured I’m a smart girl and ought to be able to figure it out. We made a plan on where I’d be.
She wouldn’t let me start from her house in town as she was sure a “pretty girl on a bike will attract trouble.”
And, unfortunately there is plenty of trouble in the backwoods of Alaska. Lots of drugs and alcohol. Few jobs.
After her final story about a pedophile “who has been castrated”, I was convinced the gun wasn’t for bears anymore.
I was really freaked out.
She drove me out the Nabesna Road. We found a good place to hide my car, and her parting words were, “You’re braver than me.”
As she peeled away, silence set in. It seemed like a good time to learn how to shoot my gun!
I found an old beer can and propped it up on a log. I loaded the magazine, removed the safety, and…nothing. I could not figure out how to release the trigger.
I tried and tried, but it was already 6 pm and I needed to get my ride on. Remember, this is Alaska and mid May. I had daylight until 10 pm, but I also knew that critters like to roam at dusk and dawn.
I took the gun as I was afraid my car would get broken into, and figured I’d learn to use it later. Great plan, I know!
The Nabesna Road is remarkable. Mile 1–15 are paved and then it turns to a dirt road for the remaining 27 miles. The road was in fabulous condition having just been grated smooth.
On both sides were black spruce and lots of caribou tracks. To my right rose the inactive shield volcanoes of Mt. Sanford, Mt. Zanetti, and Mt. Wrangell. All were blanketed in snow.
To the left were gorgeous peaks as well. They were perfect mounds of charcoal gray, red, and gold colors. Snow accented the terrain.
This part of the Park has long been home to the Upper Tanana peoples. Archeologists have found artifacts as early as 13,000 years ago. Life for the Tanana people changed immeasurably with the discovery of gold in Alaska and the Yukon Territory. (The same goes for the Tlingit and Ahtna People whose traditional lands are also on this trade route).
The road I biked was formerly an access route to ship gold from the Nabesna Mining Corporation. This mine was child’s play compared to the Kennecott Copper Mine on the other side of the range, but it still kept lots of men (and some women) employed during the Great Depression.
When the heyday of the gold rush passed, most went with it. The die hards in search of freedom and minimal government are all that stayed.
Homesteading was allowed in this area as late as 1983. That means that at one point you’re in the National Park and the next you’re passing through private property.
I didn’t see many people, but who I did see did not wave. No smiles. Just gruff looks and a renewed vigor in my legs to pedal faster.
When planes flew overhead, I was convinced it was a vehicle coming. I’d run through all types of terrible scenarios in my head.
There are so many places to dispose of a body in the largest National Park in the United States!
An imagination can ruin a good time. And I was here on a mission to relax, think, and renew my energy. I was certainly not relaxing when my chest filled with anxiety so tightly I could barely breathe.
I have done a lot of adventures solo. It helps me get grounded into my mind and body.
But, something’s been shifting in me lately. Perhaps I’m getting older and my risk tolerance is changing. Surely the world is not anymore dangerous today than it was 100 years ago.
By about 9 PM, I made it to my intended camp site. A light rain was starting to fall. I went to set up my tent and realized I had forgotten the fly.
Worse yet, I had consciously removed the fly from the tent bag!
I was borrowing a cheap Wal-Mart tent. My poor Uncle Wally who taught me to backpack as a kid would die if he knew this. When I saw the fly made of tarp material, I assumed it was an unnecessary extra tarp for the bottom of the tent.
Tired, I threw the tent over the picnic table and climbed under. Perks of being 5 foot nothin’.
Before calling it a night, I went to pump water. I went to the lake below my campsite and found it was completely frozen around the perimeter of the lake. Parts were melting out in the center of the lake, but Spring was very much still on its way.
I looked up to see the most enormous beaver I have ever seen paddling through an open spot in the ice.
The water was a red brown color. Everywhere it was this color. Not just the lake.
I didn’t want to drink duck and beaver poop, so I found the lake inflow and pumped water.
The water looked like I peed into a bottle.
As I was pumping, it occurred to me, “how often are you supposed to change filters?” Don’t get me wrong, the filter wasn’t going to change the color of this water, but it seemed like a prudent question to ask before camping.
Under the picnic table, I journaled and wrote a card. It’s really not as spacious under there as you would think.
When you camp alone and nobody is around, squirrels sound like bears. A truck drove by, and my heart raced. I was out of sight, but I was scared nonetheless.
Finally, I put in earplugs to drown out my imagination and get some sleep.
Come morning, I woke and realized, “I am alive!”
The warm light thawed me out and finally put me into that relaxing state we all crave in the outdoors. At last, I was slowing down and finding stillness.
Anyone that knows me, knows that a few hours of stillness is a big accomplishment. Before noon, I was packed up again and pedaling to my next big fear: river crossings.
Whenever you read about the Nabesna Road, you are advised to contact the ranger station and get a road report. Well, it’s closed right now, so I had to go check it out myself.
As I approached the first crossing, I realized that the gravel bars had been plowed flat 1/4 mile wide. At most, the water was 4” deep. The water was being dissipated widely to prevent channel creation.
By the third big crossing, I realized that I was faring so well because Spring has not hit. The day was approaching 60 degrees, but the mountains were still cool.
I could see evidence of what a raging Spring runoff river could do, but thankfully, I was missing it.
I pedaled on.
I was like the land — waking up. My legs remembered what pedaling for hours felt like. They liked it. After breaking my collarbone for the second time last year, I moved to Valdez, Alaska where there are no mountain bike trails. I sold my bike.
It felt like I sold my left arm. I loved that bike and all she symbolized. I built up a Rodeo Labs gravel bike instead and thought this could be a safer way for me to adventure.
I say safe, but then I travel in bear country by myself, so perhaps the mountain bike wasn’t so bad!
I rounded a bend and before me lay Mt. Blackburn. Wowza! What a mountain. She lured me as close as I could get for a better look. Things were starting to feel distinctly more wild the further I went.
I yelled a few more “Hey Bear’s!” for safe measure.
Atop the last hill, I came around a slight bend to see a parted out bush plane on a grassy runway, with Mt. Blackburn as the backdrop. I couldn’t believe the view.
I wanted to stop and take photos but at this point I was on private property again, and keenly aware of what an outsider looks like during a pandemic.
I made it to the end of the road and thought I’d hike to Rambler mine. Hiking a bike through mud and dense brush, I decided to save hiking for another day. I was in Xtra-Tuffs after all.
I pedaled back towards Slana and found another nice camp spot. I had just got a Kindle and it seemed like a good time to “crack open a book.”
I turned it on, went to my library, and the only book in it was “Bollinger Bands”. As a joke, my partner had clicked that book after getting my kindle set up.
I’m interested in a lot of things, but statistical charts for price volatility in the stock market, is not one of them!
Pro tip: download books onto your kindle if you want to read anything on said kindle!
When darkness fell, my fears of bears and bad guys would return, but I reminded myself, “This story will have a happy ending.”
Overcoming negative mental dialogue is one of the reasons I go to the backcountry. I know I have the strength within to reframe my fears and control my runaway emotions.
I’ve learned to do it skiing steep couloirs and on the trails in the backcountry. It’s a skill - a skill I find highly transferable to my work world.
Once the top of the onion is chopped off, it gets much easier to peel back the layers. And peel back I did. I thought long and hard about my relationships, my decisions, my progress, and goals.
I journaled as if I was talking to someone all day.
I never would have made that progress if not for five days solo. It takes a little while to think about everything that builds up.
My biggest takeaway was that I can’t wait until a long trip to the mountains to solve everything. I need to find a better routine and balance in my day to day.
I walked to a nearby lake and in lieu of singing to notify the bears, I decided to recite my resolutions upon returning to the real-world. Walking through the woods I declared:
- “I recognize I cannot change the beliefs of others, only my own.”
- “My work is an expression of me, but it is not who I am.”
- “I will manage my transitions between activities for better energy.”
- “I will go to sleep by 10 pm three nights per week.” (This is hard in Alaska with the midnight sun. It’s also a keystone habit I noticed that lends to other positive behaviors.)
- “I will reinstate my morning routine and plan intentional breakfasts.”
The magic is in bringing these wonderful insights and resolutions home. That and remembering to bring the fly to your tent!
On the fifth day, it seemed like time to return home. I was ready. As I slowly pedaled towards Slana, I realized, it wasn’t the bears or the boogeyman that was going to get me. It was negative thinking.
Once I calmed the bad thoughts, I could hear the birds sing. I could feel the spring time sun on my face. I could slow down and enjoy the mundane. I could think clearly.
And with that, I recited my last resolution: “Don’t let your thoughts ruin a good time!”
Meredith is an entrepreneur, community leader, and outdoor adventure. She is part of Geeks in the Woods, a new wave of pioneers building technology companies from remote, yet connected Valdez, Alaska. Meredith is on a mission to inspire other women to try their hand at entrepreneurship. She founded the Grant Writing Unicorn Collective, the only program of its kind to help those looking for a career change build grant writing consulting businesses. Meredith’s expertise has been featured in Fast Company, and her book, How to Write a Grant: Become a Grant Writing Unicorn, is a #1 bestseller for nonprofit fundraising and grants on Amazon. Meredith has secured over $42 million in grant funding, and her students have secured over $250 million — a number that grows daily. You can learn more at www.learngrantwriting.org and get a free audiobook version of her book.