MILES OF PORTRAITS: ALASKA – BEFORE I DIE…

MILES OF PORTRAITS: ALASKA EPISODE 5

New here? This is the fifth part of a five-part series. Read about and watch all the episodes here.

Erik, we’ve learned, is a golden cloud – someone who brings good weather. Up until this point, we’ve been enjoying sunshine and rainbows despite it being Alaska’s wet season. So we’re a little thrown off when we step off the ferry into the pouring rain. We trudge through to find a dry spot where Erik can change his flat.

The majority of Whittier’s 200 residents live in the Begich Towers, a former military base. We spend an hour at the museum, learning about the history of this unique town until we’re museum-ed out.

According to officials, in order to get out of this town, we need to find a ride. That’s because the only way out is through the Anderson Memorial Tunnel and it doesn’t allow bikes. We’re told to stand right outside the tunnel entrance and wave down cars. It’s still raining, and there is no vestibule for us to stand under. (Hey, Alaska DOT – can we do something about this?!) It takes about 45 minutes for someone to stop. Ole, an emergency clinical worker, and hostel owner loves to help travelers out when he can. He drops us off at the other end of the tunnel and we get back on our bikes.

It rains, and it rains, but our mood is instantly uplifted when Erik discovers something.

We’d both read about the magic of sticking a pool noodle on the back of your bike to alleviate the number of skimming cars. Erik realizes he’s got his own version of a pool noodle! It’s his full-size tripod. He wraps it with BioLite string lights and just like that – every single car that passes us moves to the other side of the road. (Take caution when trying this at home. It doesn’t work with 18-wheelers and a more flexible device such as the original intended pool noodle is probably safer).

Erik on his bike with mountains in the background and a flat valley floor filled with grasses.
Erik rides by the coast of the Turnagain Arm.
Mountain scape photo with hints of a blue sky through the fog.
Fog rolls by Mount Marathon.

The next day, we head for Hope, a sleepy town perched on the Turnagain Arm, livened by summer crowds and annual bike race. We lean our bicycles against the Seaview Bar & Cafe, and people keep asking us if we’re participating in the race tomorrow.

“What race?”

If you don’t know about the Soggy Bottom Bike Race, you should. It’s a 108-mile ride with 10,000 feet of elevation that starts and ends on Hope’s Main Street. Erik spends the day filming the muddy faces of these badass participants. At the end of the day, the entire town gathers at the Seaview Bar to cheer on the racers as they finish. Golden hour stretches until midnight, beers are passed around, and music blasts.

Johnny, one of the organizers of the race, lets us camp by his property, so we don’t have to pay the $15 camping fee. We wake up by the water, load up our bikes, and reluctantly get back on the road.

Before we know it, we reach Seward – the endpoint of this journey. I search Warm Showers for a host and find Patrick, a red-headed trail runner who’s always got a smile on his face. He lets us crash in his living room for a few days where we spend the nights playing Pass The Pigs over ice cream. Steps away from Patrick’s front door is the trailhead for Mount Marathon. Patrick races it every year, but on this cloudy day, Erik and I decide to take the less-grueling route up the mountain.

The trail is marked as “moderate” – which in Alaska means “treacherous.” After a recent rain, the trail has turned to mud, and we slip every five minutes trying to get up it. When we finally reach the top, we’re above the clouds. Did I mention Erik has been wearing Cole Haan dress shoes this entire trip?

An image juxtaposing two hikers against a giant boulder field with a creek rushing nearby as fog drapes the mountains in the distance.
The sweet reward of hiking up muddy Mount Marathon.
Annalisa sitting on the toptube of her bike looking across the harbor.
Roaming the fishing docks in Seward, AK.
An aerial photo from a drone of a rider below on singletrack with trees surrounding the area.
The Soggy Bottom Bike Race.

Just before catching the train back to Anchorage, Erik and I come across one of Candy Chang’s Before I Die walls. These chalkboards can be found in cities around the world and invite passersby to fill in the blank: “Before I die, I want to ____.”

For me, reaching this wall was like making a full-circle.

Four years ago, when I was working at The Bold Italic in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to design an online interactive version of these walls. Just as I was working on this interactive bucket list, I got a call from my father. He told me, very calmly, that my mom was in the ICU and that I needed to get on the next flight to New York. I flew home on the most nerve-wracking flight I’ve ever been on. Then I trudged through the three worst weeks I’ve ever been through, during which I watched my mother get better, get worse, get better, get worse, and ultimately die of leukemia complications. It’s a hard story to tell, but it’s imperative that I tell it.

Because those three weeks are exactly why I’ve chosen to pedal as much as I can. Those three weeks made me realize that our health is not a guarantee and that I should probably be doing what makes me happy. The Before I Die walls are a reminder to live your dreams so coming across one at the very end of our bike trip, while we were making our way through our own bucket list, was quite affirming.

Finish this sentence: Before I die, I want to ____.

But please, if you can help it, don’t put that dream off for “someday.”

A photo of Erik stopped on the side of the road with the legs of his tripod wrapped in lights.
How do you prevent cars from skimming you? Stick something off the side of your bike!
Annalisa and Erik pose for a photos with their bikes with the wall as their backdrop.
Candy Chang’s 'Before I Die' walls invite viewers to add to a crowdsourced bucket list and hold a special place in my heart.
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Annalisa van den Bergh was born and raised in New York City by a Venezuelan mother and a Dutch father. She's a visual storyteller with a BFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She's currently riding her bicycle around the world and taking pictures of the people she meets. The project, called Miles of Portraits celebrates the ways the bicycle brings people together.

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