A week ago I decided it was time to go see about a hole.
Every year different iceberg formations appear at the foot of Knik Glacier. From a distance, these icebergs look like blue glass scattered by the massive, sprawling glacier north of Anchorage and frozen in place for the season by the lake. They are different shapes and sizes, and all of them dwarf me.
This year there’s been one berg in particular that keeps popping up on Instagram. It looks like it has a perfect circle punched right through it. I’ve never seen anything like it so last Saturday, my husband and I loaded up the car with our bikes and set out to find the hole.
Here is the thing about riding a bike to a glacier: it’s actually as hard as it sounds.
That’s not a brag. My shtick here is 95 percent about being confused by my own ability to do things, and encouraging others to do more things even if we don’t identify as “outdoorsy” or “athletic.”
But I am also keenly aware of my own abilities and limitations. My body’s “slow down” and “hard stop” sensors are fine-tuned, and I can distinguish those signals from the “this is harder than being on the couch” alert.
When I first started riding a fat bike, I was sorely disappointed it did not magically float on snow. That didn’t stop me from trying. I tried riding an unplowed, deep snow path and went about a foot before stopping. Then I kept trying. I got a surprisingly good workout that day.
Even when I found paths that were packed, it took some time for me to get used to riding smoothly without jerking my handlebars around. My sensors being fine-tuned and all, I quickly noticed that fat biking was a lot of work. Much more than skinny-tire pavement cruising. The pace is kind of the difference between zipping and whoompfing.
So biking 10 miles out to the glacier, and then turning around? In temperatures ranging from single digits in the shade to double in the sun?
Here’s what it is: it’s a wilderness experience, with no services along the way and on variable terrain. Sometimes the trail is packed and makes for fast riding, and other times it’s more like the fluffy snow I once tried and failed to ride. There is a creek crossing. Weather can change, there is wildlife and the glacier itself is always on the move. And every minute is spent constantly rotating those wheels, whoompfing along the trail at a steady, slow pace. If you haven’t been on a bike for a long time, your butt will explain that to you in painful detail.
The destination is absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful.
The path out is clear because of so much fat tire traffic. Following this superhighway of tire tracks, the bulk of the 9 or so miles to the foot of the lake is along the shoulder of the Knik River — flat and open country punctuated with low brush and glimpses of the glacier here and there.
In great conditions it can feel monotonous over the course of a two or more hours; in soft or windy conditions it can be grueling and much longer.
I forgot everything about the ride out when I reached the foot of the glacier. The trail skirts the mouth of the river, with icy rocks and flowing water glittering in the sun. Suddenly the entire sweeping Knik Glacier comes into full panoramic view, studded with ethereally blue and glowing ice.
Riding out to see about this hole, I felt the familiar giddiness. I am not known for my “chill” — something my husband likes to point out. Combine my natural tendency toward hyperbole with something as spectacular as a glacier and, well, I’m vocal about it. I apologize for anyone who heard me yell profanities.
I could see the iceberg with the big hole in it from a distance. After about a mile, we were right there, passing teams of other cyclists along the way. It’s hard not to smile. It’s hard not to beam, feeling so lucky to be in the sun, seeing other people choosing to spend their day the same way, all at the foot of this giant wonder in our backyard.
Closer to the berg and the foot of the glacier, I got quiet. The glacier and icebergs around it are more than beautiful, they’re surreal. The colors, textures and interplay with the sun make every angle seem new. There are so many features to explore, but since we didn’t have all day choosing one corner needed to be enough. It was.
We rode back just as the sun fell behind the mountains and locked us in shadow. The part of my balaclava not right in front of my mouth froze solid. It took us about two hours to get back.
Things to know if you go:
The access we used is from Knik Glacier Tours, located off Knik River Road at 26326 Buckshot Lane in Palmer. Owner Tom Faussett encourages people-powered (no motorized and no equestrian) usage of the access and has signs indicating where people can park in a lot. No street parking, please.
I recommend an early start to catch the best light and maximize time near the glacier itself. For me, early on a weekend means 10 a.m.
There is a creek crossing a mile into the ride. When I did it, my feet dipped into the water. Like the classy girl I am, I used trash bags to cover my boots and it worked fine.
This glacier is on the move. Be wary and respectful.
This story has been corrected to clarify that no motorized or equestrian traffic is allowed on the Knik Glacier Tour’s access to the glacier.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.