In the shadow of the iconic Denali peak in Alaska, a family bikes over the next rise and into the great unknown.
My younger son was 8 months old, his brother almost 3, when we set out on our first backcountry adventure as a family, a combined cycling and camping trip in Alaska’s Denali National Park. We’d driven several hours north from Anchorage and began pedaling toward the unknown, which I’ve since come to recognize as the only reliable destination when traveling with kids. High above the muted tundra stood the tallest peak in North America, and a stunningly beautiful backdrop for a bike ride. In the foreground, nestled among sleeping bags and down coats, were two boys in a bicycle trailer, their forms as small as the mountains were big.
Somewhere in my parenting psyche, I began that weekend to relate to a bike as a symbol of change, a time traveler whose shadow mirrored my own. It followed me up steep gravel slopes and down rutted washboard roads as I towed a sliver of my heart behind. It lingered nearby when my sons dropped their training wheels, each of their personalities reflected in supersize: one child exceedingly cautious, the other terrifyingly bold, alternately testing my patience and rendering my voice hoarse from admonishments to “be careful,” “slow down,” “please stop!” It struck me most of all when the four of us finally pedaled together, my husband and I giddy from our family’s collective ability to move. But five years ago, on a bluebird afternoon in May, I knew only that cruising through Denali with my family was both a beginning and an end, as every trip ultimately is.
Forty-six miles from the park entrance, the colorful cliffs of Polychrome Pass marked our turnaround point, and a humbling triumph. It wasn’t our distance or speed that was notable, but the fact that we’d made it at all. Operating on the staccato schedule of young families everywhere, we’d stopped frequently along the way, pausing to stretch our legs and nurse the baby, change diapers and feed a toddler’s insatiable hunger for snacks. Though problems on our route were blessedly few, we’d nearly rear-ended a black bear one day, and dodged rock fall the next, the stakes of each obstacle heightened by having children on board.
As we started off again down the long, winding hill, a single glance at my boys’ smiles, their joy magnified by the promise of spring, was sign enough that I should hold tight to this moment, before it disappeared. Alongside the panoramic view of snow-topped mountains and varnished rocks, there suddenly flashed another vision, one with a bicycle at its center. Wheels spinning so fast they looked still, the blurred frame of a family in motion, the ever-present tug of time.
I didn’t understand then how much would change, or how quickly. Soon after, the park road was closed because of melting permafrost and landslides, locking a bike trip to Polychrome Pass into the archives of the past. I couldn’t see past the present chaos of family life, each hour messy and loud, to a picture of my older son one day pedaling himself to kindergarten. And nowhere in my imagination did I hold a space for the long pandemic months at home when biking often felt like the only normal thing we did. What I did realize was this: Bicycles would take us places, now and always. Between sightings of bear behinds and breastfeeding on the tundra, gazing beyond the well-trodden path into the park’s vastness seemed the closest thing to freedom I’d known since becoming a mother of two.
Since the trip to Denali, our cycling styles have aged with our sons, who, at 5 and 7, are no longer babies, but boys. In summer, we’ve hauled kid carriers and backpacks, stacked bikes upon bikes, and covered remarkably few miles without whining. In winter, we’ve tunneled through snow drifts and slid on ice, often not in the manner we’d intended. Throughout each season, our fleet shifts in tandem with our lives. From toddler balance bikes to trailer bikes, panniers to sleds, tow ropes to sheer stubbornness, the only lesson worth recalling is that nothing stays the same for long.
Often, we’ve found bicycles to be as essential for entertainment as they are for transportation, like they were during a weekend spent with my sister’s family in the Talkeetna Mountains north of Anchorage. With one balance bike, three pedal bikes, four children and three sweating, backpack-toting adults, we headed out in the rain along a muddy track. When the trail became too steep to ride, we stashed the bikes behind a tree and scrambled up to an alpine lake where we pitched the tent and peeled soggy clothes, picked M & Ms from trail mix and assured our kids that, yes, we would someday make it home again. In their imaginations, they might have biked a marathon up a mountain then climbed the world’s tallest peak. For the adults, weary from cajoling and bribing and wondering whose bad idea this had been, it felt almost as long. But by breakfast the next morning, everyone’s complaints had faded with the rain. When we returned to our bikes the kids whooped and cheered, elated by the prospect of wheeling downhill.
As our range has expanded, so has our speed, which can be both a gift and a terror. One afternoon, on a local mountain bike trail, I found myself alternately sweating as I pushed uphill and shivering as I waited, enticing one son with sweets and the other with a promise that we were almost there, or at least I thought we were. As we neared the end of the loop, the trail narrowed and the boys jockeyed for position, the younger one making a bold, poorly timed pass. In a blur of wavering handlebars and splattering mud, they careened around the corner and past a bull moose that had just stepped into view below us. I pedaled frantically after them, fearing the worst. When I arrived at the bottom of the hill to find both boys hollering but unhurt and the moose trotting off in the distance, I squeezed them hard and close. We sat down on a log and I divided the last of the gummy bears into their damp, dirt-stained palms, slowly counting each one like a blessing.
It would be a stretch to say that biking always makes us feel exercised and energized, our family unit cohesive and cheerful. Even bicycles don’t work miracles. Instead, they help carry us back to ourselves, offering a mirror in which we recognize time as fleeting, parenting as humbling, and family adventures as mostly worth chasing. Above all, they shift our horizons, never leaving us quite the same as we began.
Earlier this year, heady with the excitement of our newfound mobility, the boys now aided by strong legs and multiple gears, I attempted a mom-and-sons’ snow-biking adventure. In the wake of warm days and cold nights that formed a solid crust layer on top of the spring snowpack, I set my sights on a popular route across a frozen lake. As usual, the devil was in the details or, in this case, the packing, which took most of the morning. With the car finally loaded and the sun high in the sky, I hauled us out the door, embodying a spirit of mulishness more than adventure.
Tempers were short, especially my own, and by the time we started pedaling, the only place the boys wanted to go was home. The snow was too soft, the sun too hot, the lake too big. Under the bright optimism of an April day, I had broken the cardinal rule of family pursuits: Let go of expectations. Though they were capable on their bikes, they were still kids. When a headwind blew up, I dug a tow rope and a chocolate bar from my backpack and insisted we continue. Before we’d traveled a mile, my enthusiasm dissipated into defeat. Clearly, we wouldn’t make it to the end of the seven-mile lake, or anywhere, that day.
As we returned to the trailhead, the boys found a fort made of driftwood, dropped their helmets, and began climbing. In their minds, they’d arrived at the perfect destination. Meanwhile, I nursed my disappointment, trying to ignore the humiliating fact that we’d barely left the parking lot.
When I told them it was time to leave, my younger son surprised me with a question.
“Mom, do you want to be buried? Or what’s the other thing you call it?”
“What makes you ask?”
In a kindergartner’s terms, he explained how he’d seen a log in the ice that reminded him of the word buried, which prompted him to think about what happens when we die. Apparently while I was silently fuming about the distance we didn’t cover, my son was contemplating the afterlife.
“I think I’d be cretated,” he continued, swapping the m for a t. “But it would be hard to decide where to put me, because I love so many places, even this one.”
“Me, too, buddy,” I answered, the day’s lesson as crystalline and sparkling as the snow’s textured surface had been. No worthy destination can be measured in mileage alone.
Then, just as abruptly as our conversation had started, it was over, the tedium of parenting pivoting to the profound and back again.
Later that night, after I’d put the boys to bed, I searched my archives for an old family photo. Taken near Polychrome Pass five years earlier, my husband and I were silhouetted on our bikes, the massif of the Alaska Range shining behind us. Tucked in the bicycle trailers and hidden from view was all the rest — sticky hands and muddy boots, love-worn stuffed animals and faces bright with wonder. With my tea gone cold beside me and the strings of my mom-heart pulled taut, I suddenly saw everything at once: now and then, past and future, a frozen moment and a looking glass. In the shadow of an iconic peak was a family on wheels, pedaling over the next rise and into the great unknown.
Caroline Van Hemert is a wildlife biologist and the author of “The Sun is a Compass,” a memoir set in the Alaskan wilds.
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