The forecast predicts a weekend of rain. This weekend? For our capstone camp out?
“Does everyone have a rain jacket?”
Three of them don’t, so I tell them I’ll bring extra.
On Monday we meet to ride to REI for a lesson on packing with Amy Breen, this year’s Iditarod Trail Invitational winner. The sun is brilliant and everyone is full of energy. It’s hard to be inside. Amy, Cait, Lavanya and I all bring are bikes loaded with gear. Team GRIT splits into groups of two and three to practice packing. They unpack our bikes, check gear items off of the packing list, and repack it into their custom Revelate Designs panniers. We’re all impressed with how the panniers swallow the gear. Packing couldn’t be easier. The girls go for a test ride on the loaded bikes in the parking lot.
“Is it harder to ride a loaded bike?”
“No, it feels the same.”
We ride back to school.
On Wednesday, the girls meet at Begich with all of their gear for the weekend. We load up the panniers and strap sleeping bags and sleeping pads to the racks with old cut up tubes. The girls go for a short ride on their loaded bikes and store them at Begich.
It rains all morning on Friday. We meet at the Begich gym in the afternoon and by 3PM the rain stops. We finish last minute packing, stuff our bags with Gu Stroopwafels and Chews and roll out by 4. It’s 18 miles to the Beach Lake Lodge, the destination for our first night. From Begich, we ride Debarr to Turpin to the Glenn Highway bike path. The path follows the highway to Chugiak High School. It’s noisy, but it’s traffic-free. On the way out of town, through a fence, we spy a momma and a baby moose. The baby is a small as a dog and so little that it isn’t able to stand. Fifteen miles in, at Chugiak High School, we turn away from the highway. It’s a three mile ride on pavement and dirt to Beach Lake.
The Beach Lake Lodge and it’s two adjoining cabins are administered by Eagle River Parks & Rec. The Lodge has a full kitchen, running water and a loft. It easily sleeps ten. The two cabins each have 4 cots. This place is a gem. The mentors begin to prepare dinner. We planned to cook over the fire, but there is a burn ban for the Mat-Su Valley, so we cook inside instead. The girls unpack their bikes and explore the lake. We eat potatoes and zucchini and sausages with ice cream cones for dessert. The girls are so full of energy that we decide to go on a walk after dinner. Beach Lake has great views of the Chugach Mountains and a trail from the lake leads to Knik Inlet. Back at the cabin, we sit and visit before it’s time for bed. The mentors are all snoozing well before the girls, but that’s part of the plan– not too many rules and not too many restrictions. This is their adventure weekend.
The morning comes early. Cait and Lael are up scrambling eggs for breakfast burritos as the girls rub the sleep out of their eyes. We feast on eggs and bacon and leftover potatoes.
“Can I have another one?”
“You bet! You have a big day ahead of you. Make sure to drink a lot of water.”
We pack our bikes and snacks and leave Beach Lake by 9AM. It’s a climb back under the highway and a climb to the frontage road that leads us to Mirror Lake and the Eklutna Lake Road.
“Is that the big hill?”
I’m sorry to say that it isn’t. We have 12 miles from Beach Lake to the Eklutna Lake Road. From the base of the Eklutna Lake Road to Eklutna Lake is an 1800′ climb, but even getting to the base involves a series of hills. It’s a tough route. The girls stick with it. The love the descents and they’re counting down miles.
“We’re two thirty-fifths of the way done!”
There is always something to celebrate.
Hobbs meets us with the little yellow school bus at the turn off to the Eklutna Lake Road. The road is narrow. Hobbs sets out a sandwich board warning drivers that a group of students is riding the road. Driving the school bus, he is our support vehicle. Our priority for the weekend is to have fun and challenge ourselves. It is up to the girls to decide what is right for them. The ride is a huge challenge and we’re not concerned if they complete the steep 1800 foot climb. Once they get to Eklutna Lake, they will still have to complete a 12 mile trail ride to the Serenity Falls Forest Service cabin. Nothing about this ride is easy and we definitely want to avoid meltdowns.
We start in on the climb. Brief moments of reprieve follow steep pitches and we rest every half mile. Team GRIT fractions into smaller climbing groups.
“Are you ready to go a little farther?”
“We’ll take two more minutes and then we’ll do a little more.”
It is amazing to see their resolve.
“I don’t want to get a ride.”
“I feel like I might die.”
“I don’t think I can do this.”
But they do. All of the climbing happens in the first four miles and then the road rolls up and down, mostly descending. We break at Rochelle’s Ice Cream Stop for ice cream cones. The sun is out. We’re all in t-shirts and we rest on the green grass. Soon enough, we’re back on the bikes. It’s a two mile descent to Eklutna Lake where the full GRIT group reunites for pizza. We refill our water and Cait hitches a trailer filled with dinner and breakfast and a two burner stove onto her bike.
The group pedals out to the Eklutna Lake Trail. We have a tailwind! The first mile is rooty and then the trail smooths out.
“How many miles do we have left?”
Spirits are still high. The riding is tough. Nearing the end of the lake we see three riders waiting for us. It’s Stephen and Dan and Duane and they’ve brought us Snickers Bars and gummy bears. Thanks guys!
We pass the lake at mile 8 and the trail gets loose and gravelly. It’s a bit of a climb.
We push on, over a bridge, past the airstrip, past a campground, past a moose trampling through the brush.
“How many miles do we have left?”
“I am so over biking.”
“You only have two miles left! Get it done and you can do whatever you want.”
They all make it to Serenity Falls well before 7 and are surprised to find a box of cupcakes and a bag of chocolates. Cody and Amy baked us the cupcakes and Cody rode them out to the cabin on Friday. Stephen, Dan and Duane left us the chocolate earlier in the afternoon. Thanks everyone! We all agree that these are the best cupcakes that we’ve ever tasted.
There are hours and hours left of daylight. Alana, Anika and Lael go to the creek to fetch water. Cait unpacks the stove and begins heating the pasta. We have enough to feed an army. The girls claim their bunks and we come together in the main room for dinner. It’s pasta and red sauce and leftover pizza. After the meal, Lael and Anika head back to the creek to clean out the pot so that we can make no bake cheesecake. Just because you’re in the wilderness, doesn’t mean you can’t eat like kings. We whip up the cheesecake and let it set in the pie pans while we have a small fire to burn the paper containers. We wash out the pot one more time so that we can soak oatmeal in yogurt for the morning. We end the night eating pie and playing cards. Groups of girls go out at different times to play in the creek. It’s amazing to have time out here– away from traffic and cell phone service and electricity. Our priorities are having meals and talking and playing. Around 11PM everyone is asleep. With 17 people in the cabin, the space is plenty warm and we don’t need a fire.
We sleep in well past 5AM sunrise. We start the morning with coffee and oatmeal. It’s drizzling outside and this is our last day. A few of the girls are suffering from allergies and a few of the girls show the first signs of a cold. We pack up, fill water, and clean out the cabin. We’re back on the trail by 9.
Trending downhill, the ride back is fast and the girls ride strong. They crush down the loose gravel, feathering their brakes. They get out of the saddle on the steep climbs to ride to the top. Over the six week program they have improved so much!
Five miles from the trailhead, one of the girls hits a rock the wrong way and goes headfirst down to the beach. She falls more than ten feet.
“I’m all right! I just have a mouth full of dirt.”
She climbs back to the path. We inspect her bike and she broke her left brake lever off and cracked her left grip. Fortunately, she only has a couple of scratches and a small rip in her leggings. She’s smiling, but she’s also shaking.
She is so damn tough. We shake the dirt out of her jacket, she rinses her mouth out with water and gets back on the bike.
Two miles from the trailhead, one of the girls’ rack falls off. It’s so bumpy out there that the bolts all loosened up. We screw it back on and keep moving forward.
One mile left. We’re almost there! And then we are. And that’s it. The girls’ parents come to pick them up.
“You rode all of the way out here!”
“I used to come here when I was a kid.”
We are so proud of these girls. Before they leave, we ask them about their favorite part of GRIT.
“My favorite part was learning how to pack.”
“My favorite part was spending time at the lake and the creek.”
“My favorite part was staying in the first cabin.”
“My favorite part was riding.”
“My favorite part was all of it.”
Two of the girls tell us that even if they didn’t get to keep the bikes, they’re still so glad that they got to be a part of GRIT. But, thanks to Specialized, they DO get to keep their bikes! They load them up in their parents’ cars, we say goodbye and it’s over.
The six weeks of Anchorage GRIT flew by. We’re inviting girls from this year’s program to come back as mentors next year. Though it’s a year away, we’re looking forward to doubling the size of Anchorage GRIT. We will continue with the Begich-Steller partnership and are looking to partner two other middle schools in the Anchorage School District. If you are interested in being a mentor for next April and May, please write to us at anchorageGrit@gmail.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to all of the mentors, sponsors, and volunteers for making GRIT a total success. Thank you to everyone that donated to Anchorage GRIT and helped us replace the stolen bikes. Your contributions will also propel next year’s program.