Thursday, July 11, 2013

Biking the Old Sterling Highway/North Fork Road Loop

Some memories are seared into one's psyche, and my memory of a hellacious drive up North Fork Road to the Russian village of Nikolaevsk to watch Aurora's basketball game a few years ago has kept me as far away from North Fork Road as I could be.  That day a thick, heavy snow was falling and there were 8 inches of wet, slushy stuff over a winding, hilly gravel road.  I didn't know where the turnoff to the school was, and visibility was virtually nil.  I crept along, trying to stay on the road while straining to see up crossroads for a sign indicating where to turn. Today's bike ride imposed a positive experience over that so I won't be dreading driving it quite so much in the future.

We started at a friend's house off the Old Sterling Highway, where we were greeted with a "halll-ooooo!" from the house and a luscious plateful of fresh fruit (I think I need to go visit that friend more often!!), which went delightfully with a sunshiney, warm blue-sky day.  My crazy friend sent us on our way with a song, which was a fun start to our ride.  So down the Old Sterling Highway we went, starting near the intersection of the Sterling Highway with the Old Sterling Highway nearer Homer.  It was paved, mostly flat, warm in the shade with only light traffic.  The natural gas pipeline is being put in along the road, so there were some construction crews and we got stopped a couple times for that (I appreciated the breaks!), but mostly the 9 miles of the Old Sterling Highway flew by as we passed wildflowers, bogs and little bog lakes.  We cross the wooden bridge over the Anchor River, then up a hill to the intersection of the Sterling and Old Sterling Highways in Anchor Point. 

A cute, old cabin along North Fork Road

A short little .2 mile jog to the left onto the Sterling Highway got us to the beginning of North Fork Road.  From there it was more smooth sailing:  mostly flat, good pavement, wide shoulder and still the traffic was light.  After about 4 miles the pavement narrowed and became curvy and slightly hillier.  All told, we got 8.6 miles of pavement on North Fork Road before we hit the gravel.  And once we hit the gravel, we began to have more hills.  Up a hill, down a hill, around a curve, repeat.  It wasn't bad since the hills weren't huge and the scenery was amazing.

Mount Illiamna and Cook Inlet in the distance, with a bounty of pushki in the foreground
Broad, sweeping views of Cook Inlet and the Alaska Range greeted us as we biked higher, and about 2 1/2 miles past the end of the pavement we reached the highest point along North Fork Road.  The gravel road was packed hard and dirt, so was almost as good as pavement though we had to dodge some potholes and washboards and watch for loose gravel on the curvy downhills.  Few cars passed us so we didn't get dusted often and a brisk breeze blew it away quickly.  The temperature was right around 70, which is about as warm as it ever gets in this area, and for a change the breeze was warm rather than cool so we didn't need jackets (which was good because we hadn't brought them!).

The 9.3 miles of gravel road on North Fork Road was in good condition, belying the mess spring breakup makes of this road.
After the highest point we still had some uphills mixed in with longer downhills, till we got to "the awesome downhill":  a long, curvy swath that zipped us from the panoramic views right down to the flats of the river basin in a few short minutes.  On the ride down we got views of Diamond Ridge and beyond that the Kenai Mountains. Two miles on the flats got us to the intersection of the Sterling Highway with North Fork Road.

Diamond Ridge and Kenai Mountains.  I took this picture after our bike ride when we drove it to get mileages.                     I wasn't going to stop on the downhill just to take a picture!
Nearly a mile on the Sterling Highway was the one section of the ride I was dreading.  Luckily no semitrucks passed us in the few minutes we were on it, but campers, RVs and pickups cut it closer than I was comfortable with even though we were riding on the shoulder.  I had my brilliant Homer Women's Nordic biking jacket on so they couldn't miss us.  Those were mostly certainly the only rude drivers we met during the 2 1/2 hours we were out there, and while getting groceries in Save-U-More after the ride a guy who'd passed us (a complete stranger) asked us how our ride was.

So this loop is 27.7 miles, which is a nice, comfortable ride.  Of that, 18.6 miles were on pavement, and was easy riding.  We definitely chose the right direction to go for the easier workout:  if we'd gone up North Fork from the south towards Anchor Point we'd have faced that huge hill, and if we'd taken the Old Sterling Highway from Anchor Point towards Homer we'd have had a slight uphill rather than the slight downhill.

As I bike more I've been looking for longer rides around Homer, and I've just found my favorite.  I'm looking forward to doing this one again.  Hopefully similar conditions will prevail!

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