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Riding and Packrafting Alaska's 'Lost Coast'

By: Melissa DeVaughn, McClatchy Newspapers

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (MCT) - Before launching their packrafts in the iceberg-studded, swirling chaos of Hubbard Gap, Eric Parsons and Dylan Kentch agreed they would have each other's backs. If one got into trouble paddling their small rafts through the swirling water, the other would try to come to the rescue.

But, said Parsons, a 32-year-old engineer by trade but adventurer by passion, "as soon as we hit the water, that kind of went out the window."

"We were like little photons in a neuron generator," said Kentch, 24.

Swells were enormous. The glacier was calving and the icebergs were scudding through the water like torpedoes. It was all the two could do to stay upright, trying to paddle their cumbersome bike-laden packrafts. For 15 minutes they battled the waves, fighting forward inch by inch until, finally, being safely spit out in the open water.

Beyond, the Hubbard Gap, the icy maelstrom was gone, replaced by clear skies and flat water that allowed them to enjoy the rest of the day.

"That was a religious experience," Parsons said, still shaking his head weeks later at the memory.

The Anchorage pair is back in town now, after last month completing a wild, 300-mile adventure combining mountain biking with packrafting, from Yakutat, Alaska to Cordova, Alaska.

They followed what is called the Lost Coast, pedaling fat-tired Surly Pugsleys across sandy beaches when conditions were right and blowing up tiny packrafts and loading the bikes on top when water crossings were warranted.

The 19-day adventure was everything they had hoped - some great wilderness riding, a little of the unknown with weather and navigational challenges and lots of "Oh, wow!" moments of incredible beauty and solitude.

"Every day, it was like something crazy would happen, and we'd think, 'That was nuts,' " said Parsons, who's already beginning to hatch plans for a similar Arctic-based adventure.

The trek began Aug. 19 from Yakutat. The pair walked and biked for about two days in fairly good weather until reaching Disenchantment Bay, where their rude awakening to dangerous water travel at Hubbard Glacier and the Gap would take place. Friends who had passed through the area on their own trek months before told Parsons the Gap was easy, a simple float to open ocean and easy paddling.

But conditions deteriorated, whipping up foul weather and turning the narrow gap into a cauldron of danger.

"When we got there, it was floatable. But within a half hour, there were so many icebergs you couldn't float it at all," Kentch said.

So the pair decided to wait it out, setting up camp and building a fire in the hope that conditions would improve the next day.

When that didn't happen, they opted for Plan B - to bushwhack with their 30-pound, fat-tired bikes and backpacks through dense foliage around the Gap.

"It was impossible," Parsons said. "Bushwhacking with bikes is hard, and 10 hours later, we hadn't even gone a mile."

They stopped again, discouraged but nowhere near giving up. In fact, the thought of giving up never entered their minds. They just kept thinking of options.

Finally, one presented itself.

SHOOTING THE GAP

"We found a gully that dropped down to the water, and paddled through the Gap as fast as we could," Parsons added.

Paddling through the Gap, which on their blog, lostcoastbike.blogspot.com, they renamed "Terror Gap," took only about 15 minutes. But it seemed epic, the two agree.

Once safely away from the bottleneck and with the experience behind them, they were able to relax and enjoy the rest of the day.

"It was 60 (degrees) and blue skies; it was a nice day," Kentch said. "It was very gentle ocean paddling.

"We made some coffee and we just paddled across and saw four grizzly bears in an hour."

The wildlife sitings were not isolated, the men said. They routinely saw bears, or signs of them, but nothing bothered them. And they never felt threatened.

Just a few days later, Parsons and Kentch were making steady progress, swapping between pedaling and packrafting, in good weather and foul. They found an old fishing cabin and holed up against the rain, not continuing their journey until the following morning.

But just a few minutes into riding, something went wrong

"My bike made this full crunching noise," Parsons said. "I knew that was not good. The chain ring bolts had loosened and the pedaling force had ripped the chain ring entirely off."

It was in two pieces.

And a bike can't operate without one.

Fortunately, the men had a satellite phone with them and called Anchorage bike shop owner Greg Matyas at Speedway Cycles in Spenard. Over the static of hundreds of miles of wilderness, Parsons relayed the problem, and Matyas said he could help.

"I did what was necessary to get them back on the trail again," Matyas said. "I just happened to have the parts in that he needed, and I had it Gold Streaked (Alaska Airlines package delivery service) down to Yakutat."

From there, Parsons arranged to get a Bush plane to drop the parts on the beach. Within 20 hours, the two were on their way again.

And that's how their days went, from one challenge to the next.

NOTHING ASSUMED

"Things that we thought were going to be easy were hard, and things we thought would be hard were easy," Parsons said. "When we got to Icy Bay, which we thought was going to be tough, it was perfectly calm with no ice and we paddled across it in four hours."

"We thought crossing the Copper River Delta was going to be really hard ... and we anticipated lots of mud and marshland," Kentch said. "But the sand was really firm, and we could ride for long stretches."

Then there would be the challenging days - such as boulder-picking their way across the beach along Sitkagi Bluffs, pushing and carrying their bikes over the rocks.

"But then the next day we had some of the best riding on the whole trip," Parsons said.

On balance, it was the trip of a lifetime, they said.

And 40 pounds of cookie dough fueled it. "We had no stove, and the cookie dough is like half butter, half oats, so it's pretty efficient," said a rail-thin Kentch.

Kim Menster, a Cordova gillnetter who came upon them in Controller Bay at a place the locals call Barney's Hole, said she was impressed by their lack of pretension. She ultimately helped them cross the bay in bad seas to safely deliver them to Kanak Island. Later, she hosted them at her Cordova home.

"They were so nice, they just really had good attitudes," she said. "When you meet these adventurous types, you expect macho kinds of guys who are like, 'Here we are.' But they weren't like that at all."

Instead, she said, they just took each day in stride. The morning after meeting them while anchored up at Barney's Hole, she went ashore to check on them.

"You think of adventure people and you expect them to be up at the crack of dawn," s he said.

Not so for Parsons and Kentch, who at 9:30 a.m. were nowhere to be found, she said. Later they rolled out of bed, rubbing their eyes and thinking about the day ahead.

"It's amazing the amount of food that little guy (Kentch) can pack in," Menster added. "Eric's (easily 20 pounds heavier and several inches taller) eating a little bit of cheese and a little bit of cookie dough, but Dylan's just in the background eating cookie dough like a machine, packing in the calories."

Within days, Parsons and Kentch became well known among the commercial fishermen, who were just gearing up for silver salmon season and had gotten word of the adventure through radio communication among the boats. While the occasional birder or kayaker can be found in the area, two guys on bikes with packrafts was a definite anomaly.

"We joked about that a lot on the radio, how we go out and we fish and it's kind of a pretty intense thing," she said. "But then fishermen hear about them riding their bikes from Yakutat and they say, 'That's crazy!' These (fishermen) are people who go out in huge seas; they don't think what they do is crazy at all."

Matyas said it takes a certain person to take on wilderness treks such as the Lost Coast trip; Kentch and Parsons fit the mold perfectly.

"I think they're opening up new ground (for adventure travel)," he said. "There is huge opportunity for beach riding there.

"They had a pretty difficult task of carrying everything in their packrafts and crossing open water. But both of those guys have that kind of mind set - you've got to be flexible, adaptable and have the right temperament to deal with the problems that might arise.

"They're definitely tough guys."

© 2008, Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

 

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