Day 1: Anchorage to Whittier - Alaska Loop 2015 - CycleBlaze

July 12, 2015

Day 1: Anchorage to Whittier

The bike tour begins! I left Lakeshore Inn at 8:15, heading south and east through the streets of Anchorage. Nearly every major road has a parallel bike path. Perhaps some of the paths become snow machine trails in winter.

I detoured a mile to get to the Fred Meyer store to buy an 8 ounce fuel canister for my stove. Then south and east a few more miles through upscale residential neighborhoods. Everything looks new and prosperous.

First view of the Chugach mountains while pedaling out of Anchorage.
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Eventually I connected to Old Seward Highway which is in the hills above the (new) Seward Highway which is an expressway along the waterfront. I could near the traffic droning below, but my road had no traffic.

I stayed on Old Seward highway as much as possible.
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Old Seward highway merges with Seward highway at the entrance to Chugach State Park. The Seward Highway shrinks to only 2 lanes, but with a wide paved shoulder and well-placed rumble strip. My first stop at the park has an old Alaska railroad snow-removing locomotive.

Old snow-removing locomotive.
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Seward highway follows the waterfront of the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. Steep Chugach mountains to my left, railroad and mud flats to my right. Cook Inlet has 30 foot tides. Most of the time a portion of the inlet is mud flats.

Seward highway and railroad squeezed between the Chugach mountains and Turnagain Arm.
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I took another short stop to walk a few hundred feet to McHugh Creek falls. Quite nice. I was hoping for a hillside view of the inlet but trees obstructed the view.

McHugh creek falls, in Chugach State Park.
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The Alaska Railroad is a bigger operation than I imagined. Several trains per day between Anchorage and Whittier or Seward. Most trains have 7 passenger cars. More passenger cars than the typical AMTRAK train in the Lower 48.

Alaska railroad.
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To my left were steep cliffs. I saw Dall sheep grazing on the cliffs in several places. But they were much too far away for me to get a good picture.

Dall sheep on cliffs in Chugach State Park.
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I had lunch at a roadhouse that appears to be the only private in-holding in Chugach State Park. The only services between Anchorage and Whittier. No convenience stores.

Today's lunch stop at Indian House restaurant. The only services between Anchorage and Whittier.
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I pedaled on the bike trail for most of the afternoon. The bike trail is up the forested hillside from the railroad and highway. Only occasional views of the inlet through the trees.

Recreation area in Chugach State Park.
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Fireweed and the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet.
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The bike trail has many interpretive signs and recreational facilities. Very nice. Local families were out for a Sunday afternoon ride. The temperature was in the mid 60's.

Bike trail in Chugach State Park.
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This whimsical play area has what appear to be whales in the gravel.
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Very stout shelter on the bike trail.
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I stayed on the bike trail when it turned away from the water and went 3 miles uphill to the town of Braidwood. I turned around at the Alyeska Ski Resort entrance. An extra 6 miles, but I have plenty of time today.

A missed turn took me 3 miles to the Alyeska resort entrance.
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Back on the correct route, there is no more bike trail and I have to pedal on the busy Seward Highway. The wide shoulder makes it relatively safe to pedal but the nonstop traffic is extremely annoying. After lunch I waited at least 3 minutes to cross the highway because there is never a gap in the traffic!

I had a brisk southeast headwind all day. Progress was slow, but at least there are no big climbs.

The afternoon was getting gradually less cloudy until 4 PM. Then light rain started. The most annoying thing about the rain was muddy spray from the many passing trucks being blown in my face by the headwind.

Rare moment of sun but I'm headed towards dark storm clouds.
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I was very happy to turn off the Seward highway onto Portage Glacier road. Finally a low traffic country road. And it still has a paved shoulder! It was raining lightly and the clouds look much darker ahead. The road follows Portage creek upstream to Portage lake.

Much less traffic on Portage Glacier road. Still a paved shoulder.
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I took the short spur road to the Portage Glacier visitor center, hoping to see Portage Glacier. The glacier was surely visible from the visitor center when it was built in 1986. But since then the glacier retreated so far that it can only be seen by taking a tour boat to the opposite end of the lake. The rainbow was nice, though.

Rainbow across Portage lake.
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Then onward to Whittier. The first tunnel is next to Portage Lake. Only 500 feet long with a paved shoulder and good lighting. Bikes allowed.

Portage lake and the first tunnel. This one has a wide shoulder and good lighting.
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A couple miles beyond is the main tunnel. It's 2.5 miles (4 km) long, very narrow, and bikes are prohibited. The tunnel is only 1 lane wide, so they schedule 1-way traffic through the tunnel.

The tunnel was completed in 1943 as a railroad shortcut for military supplies going to Alaska. After Japan captured Attu Island in the Aleutians, the U.S. embarked on a huge military buildup to ensure that the rest of Alaska wouldn't be easy to capture.

In 1999 an $80 million renovation made the tunnel passable to motor vehicles. So now the tunnel is shared by trains and cars/trucks. I expected to have to wait a long time until eastbound traffic was allowed through the tunnel. It took me only about a minute to solicit a ride from a pickup truck driver and I got in the truck just in time for eastbound traffic to go through the tunnel. The traffic follows a pilot vehicle at about 30 mph. The roadway is metal plates.

Inside the 2.5 mile Whittier tunnel. The longest road or railroad tunnel in North America.
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It was raining lightly on the Portage side of the tunnel, but the rain was extremely heavy on the Whittier side of the tunnel. I got totally soaked while pedaling 2 miles from the tunnel to Whittier. Temperature dropped to 57F.

My destination is Begich tower. It's easy to find-the only high rise building in town. Inside the tower there was no poster about the rental condos, so I had to go online to look up the phone number. I called the number and was told to go to a top floor apartment to register. Then I got the key to my apartment on the next lower floor. It's called the 14th floor but there is no 13th floor.

I'm staying two nights in a 1-bedroom condo which is one of several rental condos on the top two floors of the tower. $173 per night.

Begich tower was completed in 1956 as Army family housing, but the base closed in 1960. In 1972 the city of Whittier took ownership of the building. Nearly all of Whittier's 220 residents live in the building.

I'm staying 2 nights in the next to top floor of Begich towers, home to most of Whittier's population.Completed in 1956 as Army housing. Built to fight Stalin, so it's ironic that the architecture is pure "Stalinist chic".
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The climate changes dramatically when crossing the mountain from Portage Lake to Whittier. Anchorage gets only 16.6 inches (42 cm) of annual precipitation because large mountains shield it from the storms in the Gulf of Alaska. Whittier is less protected from storms and gets 185 inches (4.7 m) of annual rainfall. 11 times more rain than Anchorage!

Whittier is at the end of a long narrow fjord surrounded by extremely steep mountains. Waterfalls are visible in every direction. Today's rainy weather is normal for Whittier, but they just ended a heat wave with 80F days and a record 18 consecutive days with no rain.

View from the dining table at my 14th floor apartment.
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I had dinner at Varley's Seafood on the waterfront. There are only 3 restaurants to choose from. $60 for a Caesar salad, halibut fish and chips, and 3 beers. It bothers me to pay such a high price for food that's not especially good. $60 dinners shouldn't come with french fries.

Whittier is arguably the most peculiar town in America. It looks like it belongs in Stalinist Russia. Ironic, considering the hulking structures were built by the U.S. Army to fight Stalinist Russia. Everything was government-owned until about 1970. Even today there are no private homes. Now it's primarily a fishing port with a fish packing plant. But it still has a functioning container port. The Alaska railroad runs freight trains through the tunnel to the port. A switching yard separates the waterfront from the Begich tower.

The Alaska railroad also brings tourists and travelers to Whittier. Some stay only long enough for the 26-Glacier Cruise. Others stay a few days to go fishing. Still others simply pass through Whittier to get a ferry to Valdez or Cordova.

Most of Whittier was destroyed by the 1964 Alaska earthquake. Magnitude 9.2, the 2nd most powerful earthquake in recorded history. The earthquake caused a huge landslide into the fjord, creating a 105 foot (32 m) tall wave to wash over Whittier. Everybody in the area was killed and the port and rail yard were destroyed. The giant concrete buildings suffered little damage, though.

Distance: 67.5 mi. (108 km)
Climbing: 1491 ft. (452 m)
Average Speed: 10.4 mph (16.6 km/h)

Today's ride: 68 miles (109 km)
Total: 68 miles (109 km)

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