TALKEETNA -- Some Alaskans call any place off the road system the Bush. But when people in Talkeetna told me you could reach the Bush by a path called the Chase Trail, I was dubious.
At first glance, the trail looks like a narrow road that a compact car could handle. But as a group of us pedaled farther along this path and deeper into the forest earlier this month, I had to agree. Though close to town, the Chase Trail is just that -- a trail leading into the tamest edges of Alaska's Bush.
Of course, it took a while to make this discovery. For the first five miles of this 14-mile path, the mostly gravel, flat trail follows the Alaska Railroad. Families and those just visiting for the day should love it.
Occasionally, a train passes, bringing a roar to an otherwise peaceful landscape. As we rode this portion of trail, I noticed hints of fall -- cow parsnip gone to seed, withered tips of 3-foot-tall ferns and a slight nip in the air despite the sunshine.
The trail head is in the northwest corner of the Alaska Railroad parking lot and leads first over the Talkeetna River footbridge, then the Susitna River footbridge and down an easy trail.
The community of Chase, for which the trail is named, came to be in 1922 as a railroad station at Mile 236.2 of the Alaska Railroad. Today, only a few hardy residents remain, living self-sufficient lives along the banks of the nearby Susitna River.
Other areas have blossomed too. Nodwell, just off the Chase Trail past Mile 5, has grown into a small community and once even boasted a bar. And Clear Creek, at the end of the trail, is known for its great fishing.
''Last year we rented to a gentleman who was very interested in the Chase Trail,'' said Yvonne Krouse, who with Wayne Mayo runs Busy Bikes Rentals in downtown Talkeetna. ''He loaded all his gear and went and stayed the whole weekend there. And then he brought us back a hand-drawn map and a whole roll of pictures.''
Krouse recommends the trail to tourists, especially those who want to go beyond Talkeetna's main drag of cafes and shops.
Feeling like tourists ourselves, four of us set off down the path and within minutes felt like the only people on the planet. The buzz of downtown shoppers faded, and only green forest lie ahead. We crossed the Susitna River footbridge and then left the anglers behind too.
After about five miles, we crossed over the tracks and cycled to a large clearing with a narrow gravel path paralleling the tracks and a larger trail leading sharply uphill toward a ridge. A third gravel trail disappeared into the underbrush.
This is where the trail takes an enticing turn toward dirt.
We climbed the ridgeline path and topped out at a three-pronged dirt trail, not knowing which way to go. We headed left and, luckily, continued down the correct path.
The trail, still wide enough to accommodate a large four-wheeler, opened up with moss-covered spruce trees and spindly birch that filtered sunshine onto the forest floor.
After miles of gravel riding, our bikes seemed to glide over the packed dirt -- until we skidded to a halt at the sight of fresh bear prints. There's nothing like the hint of bear to pump up the adrenaline a notch or two. We watched closely, half hoping to spot a grizzly and half hoping it was long gone.
The trail ends at Clear Creek, and you won't be mistaken once you get there -- ''Right there is a sign that says, ''End of the trail, turn around,' '' Krouse said.
But you don't have to go all the way, and we turned back before reaching Clear Creek.
By and large, Chase Trail is easy stuff -- no big hills, no technical challenges and no hairpin turns.
You can only ride so many times at Kincaid Park or Hillside in suburban Anchorage before yearning for something different, and although the Chase Trail is not challenging, it is refreshing to see new sights. Heck, I was only two hours away from home, but felt as if I was on a mini-getaway, breaking the doldrums of the same old trails.
In fact, next time I plan to make it a bona fide vacation getaway by combining a full day of exploring Chase Trail and its tributaries while adding round-trip rail travel and a night at one of Talkeetna's finest lodges.
It's certainly not Bush living, but I'll take it.
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