Camaraderie Conquers All: Alaska’s Knik River Glacier
Words by Heather Campfield
Photos by Jeff Kennel
I used to dread the onset of winter. I have friends who cannot wait to break out their wool jackets and down coats, but I live in those layers year round as it is. I am a winter wimp – and winter in Alaska is long and cold.
Despite my apprehension to the cold and the long journey back to summer, I have fallen head over heels in love with winter and its complicated beauty. My Trek Farley fat tire bike sits at the center of my love affair with winter and the dreams and goals that align themselves as the seasons change shape the journey through the darkest months of the year. I also have an amazing network of friends that share the same love affair with their fat tire bikes.
Together, we conjure bravery and face the elements in order to go places we can’t access during unfrozen times. Together, we are stronger, we are wiser, our dreams are bigger, and our accomplishments are sweeter. Together, we go places. On this particular morning, we set out together to see the Knik River Glacier.
Knik Glacier is accessible by bike only during the winter months. The glacier itself is a five-mile-wide face with 400-foot ice walls rising out of the surface of the lake. In the past few years the journey to the glacier has become more and more popular as fat tire biking has grown in popularity. I still revel in taking first timers out to see the glacier – it’s like getting to relive the amazement of the scene for the first time over and over again.
Many dream of accomplishing the 40 mile roundtrip ride from the trailhead parking lot. Forty miles on the fat bike takes a lot longer than it does on skinny road tires. Plan for 5+ hours in the saddle and exposed to the elements. Plan to start and end in the dark. Plan for a lot of calories consumed.
Let’s face it, what to wear is a challenging question on any given day no matter the activity. Most of my friends do not rely on me as a source for what to where because they all know that I will have at least three extra layers on compared to their norm. When the temps are well below zero and your planned ride involves an entire day of riding over frozen surface water sources, the stakes can seem really high. So, getting it right is important.
Over breakfast on the morning of the ride, my phone lights up with texts and inquiries regarding what to wear. I am very consistent in this department and generally bring everything I can. Survival is my goal. What isn’t on my body already to start with is stored in one of the many frame bags I have attached to my bike.
My layering system has been perfected over time and is always evolving. But every fat bike ride starts out with the following layered apparel on my body:
Thin hat and buff around face and neck
Base, mid, and outer merino wool (religiously) layers on torso and legs
Soft shell coat with a hood big enough to cover my helmet and pants
Knee high wool socks
Cell phone just in case (almost always goes dead in the cold)
The “oh shit” layers (stored on the bike in case of the unplanned):
On the bike gear to carry my on the body gear:
Bike bag system (frame, top tube, seat post, panniers)
Pogies for hands to stay warm/dry
Extra light, bike pump, tube (in case tubeless fails), food
Chemical hand and feet warmers
Garmin inReach for rescue if necessary
As we arrive at the trailhead the sky is pitch black and the temperature reads -11. It’s cold but the starts are out and that means the sun will rise and shine. The Knik River Valley is tricky for sunshine because it is surrounded by 6,000+ foot peaks. The sun will rise and shine but will only grace the floor of the river valley for a few hours before it slinks behind the mountain peak. Our goal is to reach the glacier in the blazing winter sun.
The flurry of activity at the trailhead begins with dismounting bikes from bike racks, attaching pogies to handlebars, and making final adjustments to the layering system before pedaling off for our day long adventure. As the flurry of motion dies down a different energy fills us up. It’s quiet and comes from within – the anticipation is starting to build. Last words are shared before setting out and settling into a sustainable pace to get our blood pumping and our bodies warmed up. When giggles and conversation start to fill the air my heart knows we are good for the long haul despite the frigid start to our adventure.
This particular group of women riders includes seasoned fat tire bikers who have completed long winter endurance races to those who are in their first season of riding. The trail we usually follow is the same trail that snow machines use. Along the route to the glacier one will witness a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts – snow machines, 4-wheelers, Jeeps, etc. But it’s the fat tire bikers that get the sideways look from everyone those on more traditional motorized machines. We cross varying ground conditions include sheer ice, overflow ice jams, soft snow, windblown crust, soft dry sugary powder. Falling down and hiking with your bike – it’s all part of getting there.