Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Biking and Running Johnson Pass

Since we backpacked Johnson Pass a couple years ago, Aurora has wanted to run Johnson Pass, or at least do it in a day.  This was the year to make it happen.  Running 23 miles is just not my thing, so I said I would bike it while Aurora ran it.  We planned another camping trip around our bucket list (blog posts about those coming too) and off we went.

One of the two lakes at the summit of Johnson Pass
The day of the run dawned.  I had my biked geared up (pump, repair kit) and backpack packed (food and drink, extra clothes, sunscreen, bug spray, emergency supplies) the night before so just the cheese and sausage and Odwalla's (fruit smoothies) needed to be thrown into the bag.  A quick drive from our campground in Cooper Landing got us to the southern end of Johnson Pass.  Mosquitoes were swarming and I sprayed, which seemed like an effort in futility in the face of the aggressive bugs.  I velcroed the bear bell to the handlebar of my bike and off we went.

As we headed past the first lake, a float plane flew over and dropped off 4 folks that we met on the trail.

The elevation change of Johnson Pass is 1000 feet over the 23 miles, so that's a pretty mellow incline.  The trail started off rough and rocky.  Within a mile of starting, Aurora in the lead, I heard a squeal and high-pitched screams.  Rounding the bend, Aurora was excitedly chatting with a couple of her good friends (plus moms) who were just finishing 4 days backpacking the trail.  They gave a us a trail report:  few downed trees, pushki over our heads and plenty of fresh bear scat.  They offered us their bear spray, which we declined.  I figure that by time I get it out it would be too late anyways if a bear was really that aggressive, and I was counting on our bear bell scaring away the normal shy bears.

The trail was nearly obscured by pushki and tall grass in some places.

Soon after we began to climb, slowly but surely.  It was insidious:  a short, fast downhill, then a longer climb.  Those elevation gain descriptions can be deceptive since there are many ups and downs in the course of going up 1000 feet.  On the relativity scale of ups-and-downs, this trail wasn't bad. After the rocky patch the trail was pine-needle covered for miles through the forested trail.  As it neared the lakes, the trees were poplar, there was more pushki hanging over the trail (pushki like sunshine), and the trail leveled off.  It was nice having the trail flatter, but because the pushki was obscuring the trail I couldn't see what shape the trail was in.  I unexpectedly hit many rocks and was bounced around.  There were just a few places on this whole trail I had to walk the bike.

The trail in the pass, before beginning a long, gradual descent.  It wasn't quite as grown over here.
Once we started descending towards the north end of the trail, I kept thinking, "We're almost there," but it went on and on and on.  I was sure we were just 15 minutes from the end, particularly when we could hear cars zooming by on the Seward Highway, but no, it was a situation of getting into mental zombie mode and just keep going because what else can you do, after all?

There are a couple amazing waterfalls along the Johnson Pass trail.  Here is one, seen from above.

We ended up completing the 23 miles in 4 1/2 hours which is just over 5 mph, stopping just twice for 5 minutes to eat and various other times for quickie breaks.  Slow!  And yet I put this in the category of "I did it!"  For Aurora the run was just plain fun.  She didn't have to wait up for me too much on the uphill, and once we got through the flat-but-rocky-pushki-covered section, I had to brake quite a bit to stay behind her so she was able to stride out more.  When we finished I joked that she could run another 3.2 miles and say she ran a marathon.  I think she was tired because she didn't respond.

My trusty bike.  I am getting better on my less-maneuverable 29" wheels.  North trailhead checkin in background.

I have a few crucial pieces of advice for someone biking this:
  • Keep your mouth shut while going through sections of pushki.  I got a mouthful of pushki blossoms more than once.  Luckily the sun doesn't get into my mouth often so I didn't get blisters!
  • Take lots of bug spray and reapply liberally each time you get off your bike.
  • Wear eye protection!  Between the bugs circling and the pushki hanging over the trail, I got things in my eyes more than once.  If it is too cloudy for sunglasses, just wear non-darkening eye protection.
  • Be ready for a bumpy ride!  While this wasn't as bumpy as, say, the Primrose Trail, it had rocks, roots, drainage ditches, mud that was dried into bumpy shapes.  
  • This would just be more fun in June before the pushki is so tall, though it is certainly do-able any time.

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