Tents in Valhalla: Bikepacking Knik Glacier

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In March 2017, the stars and snows aligned to create a legendary day of Alaska fattire biking. Word had gotten out that you could ride from Hunter Creek across the Knik River to Knik Glacier, and when we arrived there were already over a hundred cars swarmed around the Hunter Creek bridge. Under a warm bluebird sky, Devin Kelly, Bill Brooks, Mellie Park and I unloaded our bikes and set out down the hard-packed bike track. We crossed the Knik River on a wide snow bridge and soon came to the Knik Glacier lagoon, a vast expanse of windblown hardpack and bare ice studded with elegantly sculpted blue-green icebergs. At the southwest corner of the lake the trail wound down a narrow canyon, one side made of glacial ice towering vertically thirty or forty feet above the lagoon, and the other made of rock laced with icicles. At the end of the canyon was a small, slippery trail leading up over a rocky shoulder.

The view from the top of the shoulder down the Knik Glacier Gorge was otherworldly. On one side of the gorge was the forty-foot-tall calving face of Knik Glacier, and on the other were the cliffs and sheer slopes of the peaks overhead. All around us the snow-covered mountains sparkled in the early afternoon sun. Bikers meandered up the gorge between icebergs, accompanied by groups of laughing hikers and dogs wagging their tails. It felt like a surreal Alaskan vision of pilgrims heading toward Valhalla.

Bikers in Knik Glacier Gorge

Bikers in Knik Glacier Gorge.

Halfway up the gorge, we came to a rocky island knoll rising fifty or sixty feet up out of the channel. Devin and I dropped our bikes and began climbing. The top of the glacier-rounded knoll was remarkably flat, and covered with rocks and shallow pans of silt. On the summit sat a large rock, painted silver. We could see out over the immense expanse of Knik Glaicer, and below us small planes whizzed past, buzzing the floor of the gorge.

For the next year, whenever I ran into Devin we would end up talking about the knoll with the silver rock. Returning was just a matter of time.

Day 1: Tents in Valhalla

It was already late March and word was out that the Knik River had broken up. But then we got a report from someone who’d just gotten back–the ice bridge was still in, and the trip was on.

Map of our Tents in Valhalla route at Knik Glacier

Route map.

In the late morning of March 31, 2018, Devin Kelly, Cori Graves and I pulled into the small parking lot at the Hunter Creek bridge. The sun was shining and the trail still looked firm, but there were only one or two other cars this time. Back in Anchorage, I imagined most folks were already switching out their studs or hanging up their fatbikes for the season.

The hard-packed snow trail was in excellent shape, and we made fast time down Hunter Creek and onto the snowmachine trails.

Cori Graves and Devin Kelly biking to Knik Glacier

These snowmachine trails move a little bit every year.

Despite the report of stable river ice, I was nervous about the crossing. I’d borrowed a drill and cement bit to test the ice thickness, but when we came to the crossing point it looked just as good as it had last year. We biked across without incident, and the heavy drill earned this trip’s official “pack in in, pack it out” award.

After the crossing the trail hugged the north bank of the Knik River. It soon became clear that the vast majority of the river had, in fact, already broken up, and was running briskly between overhung icy banks.

The Knik River

The Knik River, almost open for the spring.

As we headed upriver, the panoramic expanse of Knik Glacier began to flood the view.

Biking toward Knik Glacier

Cori and Devin biking toward Knik Glacier. The large peak center-left over the glacier is Mt. Gannett.

At the mouth of the lagoon, we passed several small groups of fatbikers. But rather than ride loops around the icebergs, we veered directly south on a well-defined bike and snowmachine track along the western edge of the lagoon–heading for the mouth of the Knik Glacier Gorge.

Cori biking past frozen waterfalls

Cori biking over the Knik Glacier lagoon past frozen waterfalls. Cori borrowed my brother Brett’s fatbike, and I rode on my 29’er with studded “skinny tires”. Both setups worked fine in these conditions, though the fatbikes were better on soft untracked snow.

One iceberg caught our eyes more than any other, and luckily it was right in our path. The bright sun was able to easily pass through the tall, thin ‘berg and it glowed like a turquoise beacon against the dark rocky cliffs.

Devin Kelly pushing her bike up an iceberg at Knik Glacier

Devin pushing her bike up the “beacon” iceberg.

The beacon ‘berg marked the entrance to the ice canyon leading toward the Knik Glacier Gorge.

Fatbiking into the Knik Glacier Gorge

Cori riding toward the “pinch” leading to the Knik Glacier Gorge.

The short “pinch” where the glacier runs up against the mountainside required some slippy scrambling and awkward fatbike shuttling. While navigating this section was a little tricky, it effectively marked the end of the line for snowmachines and 4-wheelers, turning the Knik Glacier Gorge itself into a de-facto non-motorized corridor.

Shuttling bikes through a narrow part of the Knik Glacier Gorge

Shuttling bikes through “the pinch” into the Knik Glacier Gorge.

On the other side of the pinch, there was nothing but silence, sunshine, and ice. We headed up the gorge, following and then losing various ski and fatbike tracks, weaving around icebergs and blue-green pools of frozen overflow from the mountainside.

Cori Graves biking between icebergs in the Knik Glacier Canyon

Cori biking between icebergs in the Knik Glacier Gorge.

Some time in the afternoon, we reached the knoll with the silver rock. We dropped our bikes, climbed to the top, and unrolled our tents.

Campsite in Knik Glacier Gorge

Valhalla Camp in Knik Glacier Gorge.

It would be hard to imagine a grander camp site in the Chugach. Up on the knoll we felt well-protected from any glacial events, and a wide moat behind us protected from rockfall and snow from the mountainsides. The view from the knoll was 180 degrees of glacial and alpine spectacle, but the best part was how close and intimate it all felt. The flightseeing planes might have a more sweeping perspective, but we could sit in silence and hear the pinging and groaning of the ice, and watch the evening light play across the seracs and crevasses.

Cori and crevasses

Cori and crevasses.

This site was definitely exposed, and we’d brought my 4-season Hilleberg Nammatj 2 in case the wind picked up. But it never did. The entire night was peaceful and calm.

Campsite in Knik Glacier Gorge

Devin’s tent site on the knoll at Valhalla Camp.

In the evening we climbed down from our perch and took a stroll along the face of the glacier.

How safe was it to walk and ride here? It’s hard to say. The entire wall of Knik Glacier Gorge qualifies as an active calving face, and a significant event could certainly break the ice we were standing on. A single falling serac could be catastrophic, and some events would be even more humbling: one online satellite map shows an iceberg at the southern end of the gorge that I measured at over 1,700 feet long. Glaciers do tend to slow down in the winter but they don’t stop moving, and generally speaking, any ice below water line is prone to melting even in the dead of winter. Is there some risk? Yes.

Nevertheless, here we were. We saw many small chunks that had broken off of the face and the ice in the gorge was buckled in some places, but for the most part the surface ice in the gorge was fully intact, and it didn’t look like any icebergs had rolled this winter. If I had to guess, I’d say the risk of fatbiking the Knik Glacier Gorge might be comparable to biking along a busy street. Yes, vehicles will occasionally go off the road, and icebergs will roll, and you’ll never know exactly when. There’s nothing admirable about taking unnecessary risks, but there’s nothing admirable about avoiding all risk either.

Cori standing outside a blue ice cave on Knik Glacier

Layers of blue ice on the wall of Knik Glacier.

Back at camp, we simply sat and watched the show as the sun slid warm light over the glacier and lit up the peaks in rosy alpenglow.

Sunset over Knik Glacier, with Colony Glacier and Mount Muir in the background

Looking over Knik Glacier toward Colony Glacier and Mount Muir.

Devin turned in for the night. Cori and I fired up hot cider and pulled out our sleeping bags to stargaze. For a while we looked for aurora in the inky dark, when suddenly the mountains to the east began to glow. A brilliant full moon rose over the peaks, throwing long shadows from the glittering seracs across the gorge. As much as I love big day trips, there are some things that you only get to see when you pitch a tent, pull out your warmest clothes, and wait for it.

Night at Knik Glacier

Knik Glacier by moonlight.

At last the cider cooled off and the tent began to look more and more inviting.

Tent at Knik Glacier

Cold glacier, warm tent.

Day 2: Spinning in the graveyard

The morning dawned clear and cold enough for overnight frost–perfect conditions for fatbiking.

Campsite at Knik Glacier with Salsa fatbike

Morning at the Knik Glacier campsite. The silver rock is at lower right.

There were no other bikers, no skiers, and no sightseeing planes. We heated water for coffee and watched swans silently cruise down the gorge, their white feathers standing out starkly against the blue ice.

Swans flying past Knik Glacier

Swans flying north past the face of Knik Glacier.

Devin and I wanted to explore the southern end of the gorge, so after breakfast we hopped on our bikes and headed out for a side trip. The crust was still frozen solid from last night, and we made fast time. As we reached southwestern edge of Knik Glacier, I was surprised to see a large lagoon wrapping around to the east, which wasn’t indicated on my GPS map.

Devin Kelly fatbiking past Knik Glacier

Devin Kelly biking through the newly-forming lagoon at the southwest edge of Knik Glacier. The spring sun had adorned these south-facing bergs with curtains of icicles.

Back at home, I looked at historical satellite imagery and found that this lagoon at the southwest corner of the glacier emerged some time since 2011. It is likely that this “glacial graveyard” will continue to grow as Knik recedes.

Map of glacial recession on Knik Glacier

Maps showing part of our route in, our campsite, and our side-trip bike ride on the second day. All of these maps (even Google’s satellite imagery) show us riding on the crevasse-riddled surface of the glacier at various points, which would be impossible. Knik Glacier, like most Alaska glaciers, is in a period of extreme retreat and even the most diligently-maintained online maps struggle to keep up. Also note that the USGS 7.5′ map shows our campsite knoll covered in glacial ice, while the MapBuilder Topo map omits the knoll completely. I could not find any maps online that accurately depict the current boundaries of the glacier.

Devin and I biked a loop around the end of the lagoon and then headed back toward our campsite.

Biking Knik Glacier

The author biking down Knik Glacier Gorge back to camp. Photo: Cori Graves.

The crust was already starting to soften under the bright sun, so we broke camp quickly and headed for home.

Back in the glacier-and-rock pinch, we ran into another group of fatbikers out for the day. Among them were our friends Sean and Ros. After a long break we all slipped, slid and carried our bikes together back down into the ice canyon and rode back out across the lagoon.

Ros Worcester biking across the Knik Glacier lagoon, with Knik Glacier in the background

Ros Worcester biking across the Knik Glacier lagoon.

Most of the icebergs on the Knik Glacier lagoon pile up against he northwest edge, near the outflow into the Knik River. Conditions were perfect and we took a few minutes to ride around some of the bigger ‘bergs before hitting the trail.

Cori riding around icebergs in the Knik Glacier lagoon

Cori riding around icebergs in the Knik Glacier lagoon.

We could have spent all afternoon weaving around the icescape, but all good rides must come to an end. We jumped back onto the trail with the glacier at our backs, re-crossed the Knik River, and threaded our way back through the trees on the snowmachine trails.

Cori biking back to the car on a snowmachine track

Cori headed homeward.

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