Facebook recently reminded me that eight years ago my son hopped on his little BMX bike and wobbled down the driveway, peddling madly. He didn't fall off, and a broad grin from the photo told us everything. A lifetime of cycling adventure had begun.
Today that kid rides my mountain bike and powers down both single-track trails and city bike paths with confidence, enjoying the freedom a bicycle affords with the excitement Alaska's varying terrain has to offer.
This summer has found us camping often in Talkeetna, 120 miles north of Anchorage, partly because we have friends in this funky village, but also because we were looking for a place where my son, now 13, and his friends could explore on their own without an overabundance of parental oversight.
In many ways the small community of Talkeetna represents much about my own childhood — quirky neighbors, interesting places, and kids. Kids are everywhere, playing on the baseball diamond, splashing in the shallow channels of nearby rivers, bikes tossed askance on the ground. Last visit I secretly watched our gaggle of old and newfound friends mount up and head to Nagley's corner store for a scoop or two of ice cream before dinner.
While Talkeetna (population 900 or so) swells with tourists and their accompanying vehicles between May and September, Main Street's downtown core is still a place where bikes, cars and people manage to coexist rather peaceably, most of the time. This is partly due to the resurgence of biking as a form of transportation in other U.S. communities, and Talkeetna, with its slower pace and tiny streets, appears to lead the way.
Where to go
A great attribute of Talkeetna is its geographic landscape — mostly flat with a few rolling hills, the perfect environment for young bikers.
Some families enjoy puttering around downtown, enjoying the stop-start of shopping, eating and viewing Denali from the river banks. Others take on sections of the 14-mile Talkeetna Spur Road trail, a wide, paved pathway providing access to all sorts of activities, including the area's more challenging trails.
Shawn Thelen, owner of North Shore Cyclery, says the area is an ideal place for families to test their biking mettle.
"Talkeetna's paved trail is excellent, since a lot of people just want to cruise around town," he told me as we stood in the bustling rental area of this newly-opened business on 2nd Street. "But we also send a lot of folks out to XYZ Lakes a few miles away."
XYZ, part of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough's Talkeetna Lakes Park system, opened in 2008 with much fanfare as a year-round destination accessible to just about everyone. Located two miles from downtown along the Talkeetna Spur Road, the park is more than 1,000 acres of forest surrounding six lakes, with hiking and biking trails winding through its scenic landscape.
Fill a backpack with lunches, water and bug spray and ride south along the Talkeetna Spur Road until you reach Comsat Road. Take a left (mind the narrow shoulder) before pulling into the Talkeetna Lakes parking area. From there it's a matter of deciding which trail to take first. The larger X Lake loop is 3.5 miles of gentle ups and downs and is perfect for kids ready for a bit of adventure.
Casey Ressler, director of marketing for the Matanuska-Susitna Convention and Visitors Bureau, agreed with my assessment.
"The Talkeetna Lakes system is perfect for families with kids," he said by email. "These trails are in great shape right now and are a nice break from the busyness of downtown."
The Denali Ski Club has done an excellent job of maintaining adjacent trails –Mink, Ermine, Otter and Marten. Allow at least a few hours to reach the trails, have lunch, ride around the lakes and ride back with tired kids.
For a longer ride that explores Talkeetna's historic past and exposes kids to the importance of the Alaska Railroad, head north on the Chase Trail.
Lasting 14 miles between a bridge spanning the fast-flowing Talkeetna River and the deserted town of Curry, this trail is shared with ATVs and can be a dusty ride in the summer.
The first five miles follow the railroad tracks in a fairly predictable manner, but after that the terrain changes to a more rugged dirt path, a potentially rough ride for younger kids. Generally, the 10-mile out and back is enough for most families.
Do not, for any reason, allow anyone in your party to go on the train tracks.
Need a bike?
Most Alaskans have their own bicycles, but for those who don't, or who may want to test different brands before purchasing for growing kids, it may prove worthwhile (and fun) to rent a bike.
North Shore Cyclery is part museum,part bike shop and all cool. Look for fat bikes, mountain bikes and an eclectic collection of vintage bicycles that will have you shouting "banana seat!" with flashbacks to the 1970s.
If you'd like to rent bikes, bike trailers or tag-alongs in Anchorage, try Pablo's Bicycle Rentals on L Street. Don't have a bike rack? They have those for rent too, carrying up to five bikes.
Talkeetna: If you go
Location: 120 miles north of Anchorage along the Parks Highway. Allow 2.5 hours, plus a bit extra due to summer road construction.
Lodging: The Talkeetna Chamber has listings of options ranging from small camping areas to large lodges and everything in between.
Bring: Lots of water, a backpack or bike panniers, bug spray and layers of extra clothing. Don't forget a bike patch kit and pump, but North Shore Cyclery can also help with quick fixes.
Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and publishes AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and outdoor recreation.