Outdoors/Adventure

Bikepacking in a thunderstorm is a refreshing break from real life

Orange and beige nylon filled my vision, punctuated by a bright flash even in the late afternoon light. I was staring at the inside of our tent but focusing with all of my other senses on what was happening outside that I couldn’t see.

I calculated the location of the thunderstorm by counting seconds between lightning and thunder. It didn’t take long, because thunder rumbled loudly around us immediately after the lightning flash.

Apparently this is how we vacation.

My husband and I spent weeks meticulously preparing for our bikepacking trip. We stocked up for multiple scenarios and activities, ordering supplies via a curbside pickup at Fred Meyer here; an online order to REI there.

Planning a fairly elaborate outdoors trip in the time of COVID-19 is exhausting. But we knew it would be worth it for the time away. We haven’t gone far from home since the beginning of the pandemic, and this was our shot at multiple days and nights out in the mountains.

We’d loaded our bikes with various bags full of camping gear, water and food. The first 15 minutes on the Resurrection Pass trail out of Cooper Landing brought ... challenges. I love my bike. I do. But it’s a 5-year-old Salsa Mukluk fat tire bike, which means for each passing year since I bought it there is another lighter-weight bike out there.

I persisted — this is what we’d signed up for, and I was hellbent on bikepacking. But there were plenty of sections of walk-a-bike as I pushed my heavy home-on-wheels up farther into the mountains.

By the second day I was getting the hang of it, at least on the more straightforward sections of trail. We found a lovely camp in a lower-lying section of alpine framed by mountains. The day was bright blue and unseasonably warm. Our camp was accessed by a short path from the main trail, flanked by meadows and a copse of trees with a social trail leading inside that looked like it would be fun to explore as a kid.

Our first act was to set up our tent. We pulled poles and fabric from various stuff sacks and rigs on our bikes. As he was clicking poles together, my husband asked the question that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon: “Where is the middle pole?”

The middle pole, as it turned out, was on a bumpy section of trail a mile or so behind us where it had slid out from the elastic cinch on my bike, but of course we didn’t know that until later.

I spent the next hour whittling a makeshift tent pole out of a stick I’d found in the stand of trees while my husband retraced our trail. Luckily, he found the bright orange pole pretty quickly and rolled back into camp just as I was trying to rig up the tent.

We compared my precariously bent stick arrangement with the standard-issue pole, and agreed there’s no match. The tent went up and got staked down.

Later, when it became clear that the clouds gathering in the mountain pass were something more than just a standard-issue rainstorm, I thought of that elbow-crooked stick barely holding the tent up from earlier. I felt humbled by exactly how lucky we’d been to find that missing pole.

It was bizarre. On one side of us the sky was bright blue and warm, illuminating the endless soft green tundra and us. On the other side, the sky was so deeply bruised purple that I would have been alarmed to see it from my house, never mind from an alpine campsite.

We heard faint thunder. Rain pants and raincoats went on. Just as the tell-tale whoosh of wind swept our campsite and brought the first wave of rain, we made it into the stand of trees. No metal tent poles in there, we figured, and the trees were the same height. We wouldn’t be the tallest thing around and we’d get some shelter from the rain.

Looking through branches we could see the wind pushing curtains of rain high in the sky, sweeping dramatically past the backdrop of a nearby mountain. The wind blew brown pine needles across our laps. We looked down to examine the needles gusting over us from dead trees. That’s when we saw the charred markings at the bottom of the exposed trunks and roots all around us.

The thunder was audibly closer. It was a very quick conversation followed by the decision. We ran out of the stand of trees and through the pelting rain to the tent.

My heart was pounding, and this time not from walk-a-bike.

Sitting in the tent for the next hour, hearing thunder prowl around and seeing the lightning flash tauntingly all around us, I had myself a nice, anxiety-fueled reflection on the meaning of safety. I can’t say I would have chosen this experience if I’d had the option. But eventually the storm dissipated. When we unzipped the tent fly, we stepped out to golden evening light that made the meadow sparkle, glowing green and yellow with the low sun.

Our bikes were power-washed (at least on one side). We were alive. I now have this memory of electric thrill and fear, sitting in the tent, followed by a warm sense of clean and survival. It’s a feeling I’m carrying into this next bout of lying low in what is likely going to be a long winter.

A normal vacation? No. But maybe it measures up perfectly to this time in our lives.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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