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Fireweed 400 bike race kicks off long journey for two Anchorage men

Beth Bragg
A group headed toward Valdez poses in front of a Columbia Glacier iceberg. Recreating in the waters of Prince William Sound on personal water craft is gaining popularity. John Lang photo

A couple of Anchorage men hope to parlay this weekend’s Fireweed 400 bike race into a two-day road trip that puts an Alaska spin on planes, trains and automobiles. Their version involves bikes, personal watercraft, trucks and ferries.

Frank Bailey, Scott Hipsak and Brian Richardson are entered in the Fireweed’s 200-mile relay race, which goes from Sheep Mountain Lodge to Valdez. After the race, they plan to return home the long way, via Prince William Sound.

Weather permitting, the bike race will represent one of four legs on a journey that will take the trip from Anchorage to Sheep Mountain by truck, Sheep Mountain to Valdez by bike, Valdez to Whittier by personal watercraft and ferry, and Whittier to Anchorage by truck.

Keywords for this adventure: Weather permitting.

Wind, waves and fog will determine whether it’s safe to cross Prince William Sound on personal watercraft, Bailey said.

“It’ll be a go or no-go decision,” he said. “If it’s more than four-foot seas, then we will not do it.”

If they go, Bailey and Hipsak will be well-prepared for the ride across the sound, which Bailey figures will take about half the time as the ferry ride that will take Richardson and Bailey’s truck to Whittier. The ferry ride takes about 5 1/2 hours, he said, and the personal watercraft should do the trip in 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

“We carry a tremendous amount of survival gear,” Bailey said. “We wear dry suits, we have helmets with communications, GPS, flares, firestarter kits, and we carry extra fuel. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into any open-water Jet Ski trip. The Jet Ski club has really coached us.”

Bailey said he got the idea to follow Saturday’s 200-mile bike race with Sunday’s 90-mile open-water ride from the Personal Watercraft Club of Alaska.

“They have done Cordova-to-Whittier runs, and I’ve gone to Blackstone Glacier out of Whittier,” he said. “I thought, if they can do Cordova to Whittier, then why not a 90-mile run from Valdez to Whittier?”

The Whittier-to-Valdez route has been done before, but not often and not by many people. Gina Poths, executive director of the watercraft club, said she has made the trip three or four times and has done the Whittier to Cordova run several times.

Only a handful of people travel across Prince William Sound on personal watercraft, she said, but interest in open-water riding is growing.

“Every year I get contacted by a few more people, but I don’t know if they actually ride or are just interested,” Poths said. “There’s maybe a dozen (who ride) out of Whittier. There’s a few in Valdez and there’s no one in Cordova with a personal watercraft that I know of.

“The first time we showed up in Cordova four years ago, these guys came down to the dock and were (saying), oh my gosh, where did you come from? We said Whittier, and they said, no way!

“They invited us to a barbecue, so now we have friends in Cordova.”

Poths has had other friendly encounters on her journeys, some with Dall porpoises.

“Oh my god, they love to ride right alongside you,” she said. “If you slow down, they go away. They want you to go fast and they want to go with you. They cross in front of you and they want to play.”

Bailey is looking forward to some sightseeing and maybe even a hike along the way. He and Hipsak plan to stop at least once on their trip.

Another reason for the trip is to raise awareness about elder care options in Alaska, a cause that became important to Bailey in the years leading up to his mother’s death in 2010.

Richardson is the owner of Immediate Care, a medical clinic that offers personal care assistance as well as urgent care. Bailey, who owns a coffee shop, also works with Immediate Care, which is sponsoring Richardson, Bailey and Hipsak in the Fireweed 400. They hope to talk about the cause with others in the bike race, and maybe gather ideas for solutions.

Before Diedre Bailey died at age 63,  “we were looking for good options to take care of her at a time when all of us kids were extremely busy,” Bailey said. “It was a challenge to pull together the options.

“It’s tough to see the people we love struggle and not have the best, ready solutions for them.”

Chances are Bailey and his teammates will coincidentally raise awareness about open-water riding too. They are likely to be the only Fireweed 400 racers who show up at Sheep Mountain Lodge with personal watercraft -- a Kawasaki Ultra 300X and an Sea-Doo RXT -- as well as bicycles.

“Open-water Jet-Skiing is truly amazing,” Bailey said. “It’s more challenging (than in lakes), there’s more thought involved and more decision-making moves.

“When you’re in the ocean, it’s more (about) the elements and depths.”

The main concern is weather. Bailey and Hipsak will check the weather in multiple places in and around the sound before deciding whether to go or not. Then they’ll set a course and let others know what it is.

And they may pick up company along the way. Poths and a few other riders plan to ride from Cordova to Whittier on Sunday and will join Bailey and Hipsak on the water. Again, weather permitting.

The machines Bailey and Hipsak will ride each have 20-gallon tanks, and the pair will carry an extra 12 to 20 gallons of fuel with them. Their machines are built to carry three people, so the passenger space will be used to store fuel and gear.

Poths said personal watercrafts have become quieter and cleaner over the last decade. All of the open-water riders she knows wear life vests, helmets and dry suits or thick wet suits. If it’s really hot, they swap helmets for goggles.

“We started wearing helmets mainly because it’s warmer,” she said.

Poths has been all over Southcentral Alaska on personal watercrafts. A couple of years ago she went from Anchorage to Anchor Point via Cook Inlet and then to Kodiak, where she and friends circumnavigated the island.

She said she has fallen off her machine only when she is playing around. A bigger danger is getting knocked off by a wave or rolling the machine, but the machines typically don’t sink, she said.

“It’s a matter of getting back to the machine, and that’s when your partners pick you up,” Poths said. “I don’t ever recommend going out there alone. There have been people who have done it, but it’s definitely stupid.”

Poths also doesn’t recommend riding on Turnagain Arm, because the tides are too big and fast.

 “We were contacted last week by a guy who wanted to go to Hope,” she said, “and I said you’ve gotta be really careful, and honestly, I don’t recommend it.”

When Poths first started open-water riding, Resurrection Bay and Kachemak Bay were favorite locales. But in 1999, the Department of Natural Resources banned the use of personal watercraft in Kachemak Bay, a decision that is being revisited, Poths said.

A year after Kachemak Bay become off-limits for riders, the Whitter tunnel opened, offering a whole new playground for riders. And, as it turns out, it offers a unique way for cyclists to come home from the Fireweed 400.

“I’m more concerned about my legs from the bike race than I am about the Jet-Skiing,” Bailey said.

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or call her at 257-4335.

Contact Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or on