Journal

The Kahn of Katmai

His caution was impeccable, speed unbeatable and alertness always. He'd just escaped two roving boars who'd seen him as prize meal and he was flagging from the effort. Napping with his chin resting on a log afforded him a brief and guarded respite from the cruel, friendless world that surrounded him. 

 This is a photo I took a few years ago, while guiding in Katmai, of one of the most remarkable bears I've had the opportunity of being around and observing. The previous year, this cub and his sibling were under the protection of their full-sized and fiercely protective mother. I watched her defend them many times and once the pair sought shelter behind my camp as she fought off a hungry boar, eager to eat the defenseless cubs. 

When I saw them the next season only one cub had survived winter - the one known as Max. Max and his mother were never seen apart, and well into his third season he was still suckling at her tit and living with the security of her defense. 

One evening I took a group into the meadow and saw the mother and cub sauntering in our direction. Being familiar with a bear is not the same as being comfortable with a bear, so we stopped to see what they'd do. Eventually the sow lay down on her back and Max proceeded to nurse on her nutritious extract. Once he’d drunk his fill they both stood up and marched slowly toward us. The mother, mind you, was the queen of the region. She was massive and although we'd just witnessed her tremendous capacity for compassion I'd also seen her battle. She could be very intimidating.

 She walked within three feet of us, stopped and began giving our assembly a full sniff down. Breathing seemed to cease and with my index finger on the pull chord of a flare, I whispered to the group, "Don’t make eye contact". After she'd taken in her information, she casually walked away with little Max in tow. Client and guide alike shared the exhalation of air and the ear throbbing surge of adrenaline as they retreated. 

The next day we saw the pair again. This time however something new happened and little Max's life was forever changed. When a randy boar pursued his mother, she did not decline his offer. She was ready to mate again and the mother son bond was forever broken. The little guy had been brought up, cared for and protected by a potent mother but in an instant he was alone in the world, and worse yet, a vulnerable, easy victim within the Ursos arctos pecking orders. 

For the rest of the season I watched him evolve into his new rank and position and I have never felt more certain of a creatures scrappy adaptability.

It's been a few years since I've seen this remarkable bear. I like to imagine that if he's alive he's become the Kahn of Katmai.

You can't win them all

Mount Sanford

As summer drew to an end, Kim and I hastily readied ourselves for a fall trip. We’d been toying with a few ideas, but the Wrangells were calling and a long bike/raft traverse was what we desired. We loaded our new truck with bikes, rafts, camping gear and food and began the long drive east.

 

The Wrangells are a range of massive volcanoes in eastern, interior Alaska. They are both where I was raised and where I lived as a young ‘man’ and had done more to shape me than any other place ever has or could. I was excited to share them with Kim and to have an opportunity to reconnect.

 

Many people in Alaska find it hard to break away from their community and often miss out on the rest of what the state has to offer. I never want to fall into that trap and make a point to travel as often as possible. When an old family friend asked when the last time I’d been to the Wrangells was, I had to think about it. 2004 was the answer. Unacceptable.

 

Our goal was to traverse from north to south in one of the few non-glaciated routes in the range. September could be a great month for the trip because the creeks and rivers are low, but the threat of early snow becomes very real and nighttime temperatures drop well below freezing. We were a little worried that the route offers no easy bailout option and that we’d not be carrying the In-Reach tracking device, but our enthusiasm was in overdrive. I had wanted to do this trip for many years.

 

Snow had descended below 2,000 the morning we drove the Nabesna road. By mid-day we could see the warmth of the sun melting it back up the hills. Nervous discussions ensued about snow and the fact that we’d be crossing passes of 5 and 6 thousand feet in elevation. “It’s become so hard to predict the weather.” Cole Ellis said, as we discussed our route with him at Devils Mountain Lodge. My father had guided with Cole in the early 70’s and his family had been living in the Wrangells since the 50’s. I was thankful that he didn’t think us stupid or reckless for attempting our trip this late in the season but he mentioned the value of the safety net in the form of a tracking device. He was as ambivalent about the weather as us and agreed that it could go either way. 

 

After a visit and tour of the property, Kim and I loaded our bikes, shouldered our packs and headed down the trail. Fall colors in the big mountains defy description and pull much needed attention from our gazes. We’d stop every time we rounded a bend or entered a clearing to take in the majestic and colorful landscape.

 

After a few miles we reached a creek where we inflated the rafts, stowed gear and began paddling. After a short trip down the creek we joined the braided Nabesna River and followed it down several miles to a confluence with a creek that we’d follow up into the high country the following day. Near gale force winds blew up river. Whenever we got out of the rafts to scout or portage over an island we had to anchor them with rocks. Paddling down river never seemed so slow. Summer was clearly over.

 

Riding up riverbeds on big tired bikes is tremendous fun. Micro lines through a series of seemingly unrideable rocks present themselves at the last second. Just when you think you’ll have to dismount and push, the line comes into focus and you power/navigate through. Little bursts of elation pop in your head every time a successful passage over the rocks fall behind you. 

 

Kim and I worked our way up the creek for the first half of the day until we reached a fork. From there the incline steepened, the rocks became bigger and the bike pushing began. Earlier, Kim had been swept off her feet during one of the many creek crossings. Our new creek bed flowed with less water but the nervous pit in our stomachs returned. There were many creeks to come.

 

“This is no where near where we are.” I was reading the latitude and longitude on our GPS and lining them up on our map. The two lines intersected on our map but they were 20+ miles to the north west of our actual position. We’d been leaving “breadcrumbs” as we went but until now we hadn’t taken the time to read our coordinates and impose them on the map. We shut the unit off and tried again. The result was the same. “We’ve put in a long day. Let’s sleep on this problem and address it in the morning.” I said.

 

The next morning, over coffee, we discussed long and hard the situation we were in. Excluding our navigation equipment, our gear was awesome. Our hearts and bodies were in but our minds couldn’t get over our inability to navigate in anything but clear weather. “What happens when we reach the Chitistone and it snows?” “Will we be able to find the pass and what about the skinny little goat trail on the 40+º slope?” There are many wrong ways to go but only one right one. The day was beautiful and clear but already light cirrus was brewing on the southern sky. “Fuck!”

 

We’ve become used to these complicated tools that reach up into the sky at the speed of light, find three or more satellites, use trilateration and fix you to a reasonably exact position on earth. The consolation from that information can be both trivial and life sparingly incredible. To face the rest of our traverse without the GPS was to remove precisions and expect luck to be our guide. 

 

As the morning wore on more cirrus moved into the sky and we made the tough decision to retreat. Our only consolation was that we would come back and this had been a good recon. Our return trip involved biking back up the Nabesna River. It never ceases to amaze us how perfectly adapted big tire bikes are for much of Alaska’s remote terrain and we made the most or our loop back to the truck.

 

Days later one of us would bellow, “Damn! I bet we’d have been fine. We should have tried.” The other would console, “We made the smart decision and need to remember that.” The roles would reverse in an hour and the bellyaching would begin all over again.

 

We had time before we needed to come home so we drove to the southern Wrangells and spent two days exploring the Root Glacier out of Kennicott. The weather warmed but with the warmth came rain and the trip across the glacier with bikes was out. On warm days the surface of glaciers metamorphoses into loose, crunchy ice that offers traction and purchase. When it rains the ice stays smooth and slick and crampons become necessary.

 

We followed the lateral moraine toward the Stairway Icefall, one of the seven wonders of Alaska, in my opinion. The icefall begins in an ice field above eleven thousand feet and in less than five miles flows down to thirty five hundred feet. The earth trembles under the force of this steep river of ice and you can feel geology happening around you.

 

As a fresh faced 19-year old I moved out to McCarthy/Kennicott to climb mountains. My first gig was “curator” of the museum. Although my time spent with the old-timers learning about the human history of the Kennicott Mine was fascinating, I was constantly pulled into the hills. Room and board was not enough of an enticement so by mid-summer I’d moved up to Chris Richards place in Kennicott. Chris was a survivor of the famous massacre who was then running a historic tour business. Without much effort I talked him into letting me take tourists out on the glacier and later into guiding fly-in multi-day mountaineering trips, under his insurance.

 

Chris died years later in a tragic house fire along with his survivor’s guilt and treasure trove of tales. I love telling other people’s stories, but few if any as much as his. The wild, drunk pirate is gone but the guide service lives on and it was easy for me to feel like a first time visitor. So much has changed since I lived there that it’s not worth a comparison and we enjoyed our time without reservation or wistful longing for the ‘old times’.

 

On our return trip through Chitna we stayed again with our friend Michael Moody. Few people know how to squeeze a dime further and survive longer on less than this man. Every time I visit, his garden doubles in size and his breadth of wisdom about Alaskan botany triples. He lives in a shack next to the log cabin church that was built when the area was developed in the turn of the twentieth century. Growing, procuring, and subsistence fill his days along with being the only local EMS first responder and teacher. I am not religious but being around Michael feels like being in the presence of a saint – the saint of the Alaskan bush. Wild mushrooms were blooming and with Michael’s directions, we used our last day in the Wrangell’s to harvest as many agarics as we could find to dry for our winter larder.

 

We freely admit that we are spoiled beyond redemption. We’ve raised our personal bars rather high so when we are forced to return from a trip prematurely it hits us hard. We’ve gone over and over our decision to retreat and always land on that we made the ‘wise’ choice. The tenor and nature of the trip changed after our decision was made and I do not regret having seen people and spending a more relaxed time with old friends. To quote Woody Allen: ‘If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sure sign that you’re not trying anything very innovative.’

 

 

Note: I’ve been in contact with the FAA since being home in an attempt to find reason for our GPS failure. In August, the Air Force was doing controlled GPS outages but I am still not sure if there is a correlation. I also found a site that posts when there will be scheduled GPS outages. Seems like a worthwhile thing to peruse before heading into the backcountry.  

Harvest Season

Every year without fail my birthday comes at the end of July. Without a calendar I would still know when to celebrate my most recent trip around the sun because late July is when berries are finally ripe enough to pick, here in Alaska. 

As a boy growing up in interior some of my favorite memories are from this time of year. My mom and I would walk to the berry patches around our property in Slana - buckets in hand. My best intentions to put more in the pail than in my mouth seemed to always fall short. Seeing my mothers buckets filled with wild raspberries, low bush blueberries, cranberries and currents I knew that our winter larder was safe, regardless of my lack of contribution. 

Back at home berries were transformed into jam, jelly, pies, crisps and syrup. My brothers and I would elbow in on our mother, vying for who got to lick the spoon, try the first bite or be left with the scrapings of the bowl. When berry preserving was in full swing we'd remove our shirts and let the berries stain our mouths, foreheads, ears and bellies - inside and out. The berry debauchery concluded with a bath and often a frantic dash to the outhouse.  

I tuned 40 this late July and once again the berries are ripe. Im thankful for this seasonal infusion of plump, sugary berries and of the ritual my mother helped foster in me. My resolve to bring home more than I eat has improved some but I still have to remove my shirt and require a bath afterword. 


 

Fat-Bike To The Arctic - Gear Review

Bjrn and Kim pause on the Seward Peninsula for photo-op.

I have written a gear review of the equipment Kim and I used on our 1,000+ mile fat-bike expedition the the arctic of Alaska which has been published on Ground Truth Trekking

'Every expedition and trip reveals new insight about technique and equipment and we always hope to incorporate that wisdom on the next trip. ‘Fat-bike to the Arctic’ stood on the shoulders of our experimentation over the years and vicarious lessons from others.

Herein I will attempt to outline and review the equipment we used on our 1,000 + mile, winter fat-bike trip to the arctic of Alaska.'

Read more here. 

Alaska -Still Fighting

In 1989, over 11 million gallons of North Slope, crude oil spilled out of a single hull tanker into Prince William Sound. The oil soon left protected waters and was carried by the current, along the gulf coast of Alaska. 25 years later evidence of degradation is still present and the sound has never fully recovered.

 

This was the biggest oil spill in US history, until 2010 when Deepwater Horizon, in the Gulf of Mexico, ran away with the prize.

 

As citizens, we feel impotent rage in the face of such astounding disasters and are without a compass as to where to begin.

 

Mavis Muller knows ‘true north’ and doesn’t require a weatherman to tell her which way the foul wind blows. Through bold, honest and striking art, Mavis reaches audiences and leaves them empowered to confront those who violate Mother Earth.

 

25 years ago Mavis created a series of banners in reaction to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The banners have traveled the world to spread the message and have visited other communities affected by oil spills.

 

25 years later the messages are as important as ever. This Earth Day (April-22) Mavis will display the 7 banners in the Homer Boat Harbor, between 10:00AM and 12:00PM. All are welcome.

Hunting For Monsters - On Demand

'Hunting For Monsters' - soon to be released for streaming on Vimeo On Demand. Read more:

Doing what you love and getting paid for what you do is often a rare combination. As an aspiring film-maker, I always hope to pay my contributors for their remarkable talent and effort.

With that in mind, I have decided to release 'Hunting For Monsters' on Vimeo On Demand - an online rental and download viewing platform. 

I plan to make the rental fee as inexpensive as possible. We are not trying to get rich - rather we hope to sustain our creative endeavors and move these projects onto the priority pile.

The release date has yet to be set but I expect sometime within the week.

'Hunting For Monsters' - synopsis:

Lake Iliamna, Alaska's largest lake, is home to many native communities, the worlds largest sockeye salmon run, potential site of the controversial Pebble Mine and the elusive Lake Monster - Illie. On a hot mid-July Bjørn and Brent were deposited to the far shore of Cook Inlet in a landing craft cargo ship and began their human powered journey through Iliamna country to Bristol Bay, hoping to catch a glimpse of the illusive creature and slice of Alaska where monsters can still roam free.

View trailer:

Pay It Forward

I believe that inspiration is contagious. One trick to life, I have discovered is - surrounding myself with inspired people rubs off. I believe if you are brilliant, you have an obligation to share and be a mentor. If, you are like me and not so brilliant, the best thing you can do is to saddle up, as close as possible, to the smartest, most interesting and inspired people you can find. They will help expose the latent potential within.

I have been lucky in my life to have been exposed to many brilliant people. Each has left their mark and helped shaped my worldview. There are far too many individuals to mention but suffice it to say, Alaska is full of incredible people - people who live outside the mould and make lives worth talking about.

In the late 1990s I became friends with Roger Cowels, a second generation Alaskan. To my impressionable mind, Roger typified the idea of a "role model". Roger is renaissance adventurer, equally comfortable on a mountain bike as he is in crampons or a kayak. He is a capable builder, inventor, thinker and has a PHD's comprehension of nutrition. 

Roger's story of squatting in the boiler room of a ski-resort for the winter is, to me, a classic tale of passionate living. He and his buddy would peep through a crack within the boiler room to discover the ski pass color of the day and adorn accordingly, then stealthily exit, blend with the crowd and hit the slopes. Dumpster-diving and table scraps provided sustenance and for an entire winter this ruse was kept up.

In Erin McKttrick's book, 'Small Feet Big Land' she makes a salient observation of Alaska life - [What you do and how you make money are two different questions.] In Roger's case, 'what you do', would take a hearty team of biographers and most likely great stories would still be overlooked.

In 1989, Roger and three other cyclists were the first people to ride the Iditarod Trail from Anchorage to Nome. Roger rode the trail on a custom, four wheel bike of his own design. After that trip, Roger went back to the drawing board and with the help of Phil Wood and Anchorage welder Steve Baker, they came up with 'Big Foot', a six tired winter bike. 

On our recent trip to Kotzebue I thought about Roger often. Maybe I would have considered winter cycling and long fat-bike expeditions without his influence - there is no way to tell. What I know is that he did, and I am thankful for the nudge. 


 



Fatbike to the Arctic - Journal

North to the Future

 

When the dawn breaks we’ll be gone. Two years of meditation, hard work and preparation have finally manifested into reality – tomorrow we will begin biking to the arctic.

 

Months of serious intention go into these kinds of endeavors. Last year we had just begun to lay the groundwork for a similar expedition when I was confronted with a terrible reality. What we all assumed was leftover effects from a concussion my mother had had in the summer, was actually much more serious. The MRI, revealed a gleoblastoma brain tumor - a particularly nasty one. The words brain tumor land on your lap with a sickening thud and the world looses color and charm.

 

When the deafening roar of blood in my ears quieted some, we dropped everything and hurried to her side. The tumor spared some of her for me but it rapidly wore her down. She died with her family holding her and staring – mortified, as she took her last gasp.

 

Although she is gone, I feel her near and believe she would be excited and enthusiastic about this adventure. We dedicate it to her.

 

A month worth of food awaits us along our route and we have left more with friends to send, if need be. Our bikes are packed, maps are printed and batteries are charged. From here out, nature dictates.

 

For anyone who would like to follow along, we will be transmitting as we go with a DeLorme InReach tracking device. We also hope to post updates from the trail but they will depend on borrowed internet.

 

Thank you to everyone who helped us bring this trip to fruition. We are forever grateful for your friendship and patronage.

 

 

Out-biking climate change

 

We have made it to Skwentna and have enjoyed our first of many trail cheese- burgers. The trail is fast and hard with very little snow over ice, which is a good thing because it's 40 degrees today. If there were more snow it would be sloppy and we would be pushing, but as is we are merrily cruising along in what seems like late April weather.

We have a food drop here and our next one will be at Rainy Pass Lodge. If all goes as planned we will let the dogs pass us there unless the trail is great and then we may hurry on over the pass.

It was strange to get rained on in our shelter last night but with the wood stove going, we were able to dry our damp gear. All our equipment is performing amazingly well so far and as of yet no body ailments.

It feels amazing to be under way after all the time thinking about the trip - we're finally doing it.

 

 

Beasts of Burdon

 

In 2011, Kim and I rode the Iditarod Trail to McGrath. On that trip we were equally prepared, conditioned and enthusiastic, as we are now. On that trip however, we were hot out of the gates. As a result, Kim strained her knee early and it never healed, in fact it became worse. While planning for this trip we were both nervous about her knee and resolved to go easy at the beginning. So far, the strategy has worked gangbusters. We are becoming leaner and meaner by the day.

With the trail being hard and fast, we decided to head over Rainy Pass before the dogs and planned to stop In Rohn to let Iditarod come through. Descending Rainy was remarkable in that there was no snow, lots of ice, open water, loads of roots and rocks - perfect for bikes, terrible for dog mushers.

When we arrived into Rohn, the checkers, handlers and assorted media were all in position for the first teams to start coming through and we were enlisted to be 'handlers'.

After the first day, it seemed like we were with the Red Cross at the site of a massive battle. Broken bones, broken sleds and broken dreams were scattered all over the dog yard and full-grown men were openly crying. I can say with almost 100% certainty that 2014 will go down in infamy as the worse Iditarod trail, for mushers, ever. 

With only a handful of remaining teams behind us on the trail we set out again, on what for us, on bikes, is a great trail. Within a few miles we came across a rescue of a musher with a broken ankle. Hours later we passed a concussion victim wandering around in overflow, also with a broken ankle. When we camped near open water, a musher crashed her sled into the creek and needed our help extracting it. Unreal!

We have made it into Nikolai and the last of the dogs are soon to pull out, ahead of us, tonight. My hunch is, that we haven't seen the last of the mushers but soon the trail will be lonelier and less hectic.

I imagine there will be a lot of negative press about the Iditarod Race choosing to use the North Route as opposed to starting in Fairbanks. I would like to say however, that the trail crew did an outstanding job making the trail they did, under these conditions.

Our Carver fatbikes are our machines of burden, exquisitely designed for the task at hand and our bodies are the beasts that power them. I am grateful to be cyclist and not a musher.

 

Through the Woods

Crossing from the Kuskokwim drainage to the Yukon, through the Innoko, is some of the most remote and wild terrain I’ve ever been in. It seems to stretch on forever. We were very lucky in our traverse but it is easy to imagine, when you are out, that bad luck could be real bad luck. The snow off trail is sugary and bottomless. Without the path, progress would be nearly futile.

 

There was a feeling of jaws closing in on us on our way to Ruby. Each day presented a new challenge, from strong headwinds to new snow, the land was reclaiming its place and the temporary trail was being erased behind us. After Iditarod passes, that stretch of trail becomes lonely. We saw two snow machines going north and one south, in 4 days. 


Overall all our equipment is doing fine and I can no longer imagine this kind of travel without the Titanium Goat wood stove. That said, we do have repairs and plan to spend a day here in Ruby.


When we pulled into town yesterday the village seemed abandoned. Finally we found someone and they informed us that everyone was at a potlatch at the school and invited us to come. The circumstances were less than happy, as the community had lost a loved one. We felt a little out of place but due to the incredible hospitality and generosity we were fed and made to feel comfortable. I have no words to describe how much I love Alaska and Alaskans.

Quyana for everything.

 

 

The Northern Lights Have Seen Queer Sights…

 

All through the Innoko, when the riding was tough, I thought, 'once we get to the Yukon, everything will be easier. It will be flat, well traveled and little streams of alcohol will come trickling down the rocks.' It was not to be.

The same storm also deposited snow on the river and even though there is much more traffic it never firmed up. Low tire pressure and low gear grinding was on the menu each day. We worked twice as hard for less than half the miles. But we can't complain, as we were almost always able to "ride".

I inquired before we left home, about an old friend who lives in Galena and was told that he was in Fairbanks. After an icky picnic of potato chips, processed cheese dip and candy, in front of the Galena store, I inquired again about my friend. He was indeed there, living in a boat after his home was destroyed in last springs break-up. We went and found him.

Many moons ago when I first knew Jake, he and two others were preparing to float the Yukon from Circle in a home made raft, replete with a greenhouse and chicken coop. They made it to Galena and Jake never left.

We spent the night catching up in his comfortable, if small, boat. His life on the river has been rich in experience. A "neolithic Athabascan" lifestyle suits his Russian personality and it's hard to imagine him living anywhere else, save Siberia.

Jake kept mentioning in passing a character named Sidney. Finally I interrupted him to ask, "You don't mean Sidney Huntington, do you?" Indeed, the same. Sidney Huntington is alive in Galena at the age of 99. Jake appreciated our excitement and arranged for us to meet him the following day.

Sidney is deaf, 99 and lives in the Galena Pioneer Home, but his mind is 100% there. We wrote questions on paper and he let out amazing tales of growing up on the Koyukuk and Yukon, politics, Pebble and the current state of the State. Everyone said he was in good form for meeting people. The conversation was followed by a meal of beaver that had been caught by one of his sons and cooked to perfection by one of his daughters.

For those who have read 'Shadows on the Koyukuk', you will no doubt understand my being starstruck. For those who have not, proceed to the closest book seller, buy a copy and read it. You will not regret reading of the tales and trials of this legendary Alaskan.

We are off the river and preparing for a new chapter - the portage. If all goes well, we will receive our package in the Kaltag PO tomorrow morning and be on the trail for the Norton Sound.

We have passed our three week mark and life at home feels long ago. Because of our amazing camp, we do not feel spent or exhausted. Even after a hard day, an evening around the warm stove with hot drinks, food and blissful sleep revives the soul and readies the body for a new day. Tomorrow will be another 'new day'.

 

Portage

My friend Hig says, 'that adventure isn’t in what you plan for but rather what you didn’t plan for’. If this is true, our adventure has ramped up since Kaltag.

We pulled into Kaltag, off the Yukon, in the evening and were unable to retrieve our sixth of nine food drops from the Post Office so we met some locals and slept indoors. The next morning at 9AM I went to the PO, explained who I was and that I should have a box. The woman said there was no box for me there and that maybe it was with the rest of the Ultrasport boxes at the school. Umm, okay. 

When I found the office woman at the school and explained myself, she immediately began apologizing and said she assumed “we” had all come through. Why is she apologizing, I wondered. When she opened the storeroom door I understood. Flat rate boxes were all over the place, opened and ransacked. 

Most people who know me know me as a mild mannered, fun loving, down to earth person. People who know me well, also know that buried deep in my Viking genes lives an often-dormant Berserker. When the scales of moral outrage are tipped beyond a certain point the Berserker awakens and takes charge and I watch passively through my eyes as he takes care of business.

Normally, I would never raise my voice to an educator of children. They are our nations most prized possessions. We should erect statues in their honor, and should value them above military generals, pop stars and politicians, but this was wrong. The Berserker had a conversation with the teacher. “I’ll never let this happen again.” she said, as I stormed out of the building. “Good” I said, ‘It had better not.” 

Once we supplemented our missing food at the local store we hit the trail for Unalakleet, over the Kaltag Portage. We were on, for the first time in weeks, a firm trail and a brisk east wind was at our back.

Weeks ago, while pushing hard on the pedals in soft snow, I heard a pop sound come from my drive train and felt my cranks spin without resistance. I didn’t need to look to know that I had snapped my chain. Although the chain was only a week out of the box before we left, I was not too surprised. This kind of riding is hard on chains. However when I went to replace the pin in the spliced chain, I was alarmed at how easy it slid in. It felt like I could have pushed it back in with my fingers, rather than the mechanical puller. 

Breaking links in this chain has become an almost daily occurrence since then, sometimes more than once a day. I have lost so many links that in the final push into Unalakleet I had two options for gear shifting. This chain, mind you, is advertised as being perfect for all weather, year round conditions. Pure marketing. It is junk. I blame myself for not being more critical at home, when I had the chance. However, when I have to take my gloves off in 0º weather with 20 mph winds, my blame and wrath are on the manufacturer. We have been building chains since before the industrial revolution. Hasn’t this technology and engineering been resolved long ago?

On the Kaltag portage there are two BLM shelter cabins. Just before reaching the first one my chain broke again. This time while repairing it, I looked down at my derailer and noticed that the bearings of one of my pulleys was blown out. It’s the little things that’ll get you. I pushed the bike to the cabin and hoped that I could find some solution to the problem.

Inside, I found a small flat file and a washer. After three hours of filing, I had rounded the washer to fit into the bearing race and then cobbled together, with a ballpoint pen and tin foil, an inner sleeve. Surprisingly, it worked. 

It is near impossible to be frustrated or angry long, on the portage, in perfect March weather. This is an ancient path, separating two cultures, the interior Athabascan and coastal Inupiak. We felt Susan Butcher looking down on us from her perch atop Old Woman Mountain and imagined all the adventurers who have passed through this corridor. 

We have been having the kind of March days that I spend the other 11-month dreaming about. Our friend Derek has sent me a new chain and pulley, we have received our 7th drop and we are now on the coast. There are very favorable trail reports north of Koyuk, as the caribou are there and the hunters have been out. 

The adventure continues. I only hope it be the kind we planned for and not the kind we didn’t.

 

Sea Ice

My favorite memory, of riding a bike, was from 1998 when I rode from Nome to Unalakleet. The day I left Koyuk, there was a 30mph north wind at my back and the trail across the sea ice was rock hard. As I rode, fata morgana (mirage) played tricks on my eyes and the Reindeer Mountains stretched vertically into wild and unearthly contortions. I made it to the shelter cabin in a blissfully quick, couple hours.

As we drew nearer to the coast on this trip, I began to quietly fret about that 30mph wind. As Dick Griffith says, 'the wind is always blowing from the direction you're going.' 

Our passage on Norton Sound has been without incident or undue suffering. The trail has again firmed up, the winds have been very light and the sun has shone strong. Happy hunters stop on there way to, or returning from the caribou and continue to give us favorable reports from our trail north. This is a good time of year, maybe the best.

As we pulled into Koyuk, Kim stopped to draw attention to the fact that we will be leaving the now very familiar Iditarod and Irondog trail markers. We see these orange and blue markers in our sleep and must have passed many thousand of them at this point. From here we diverge and take a new trail to the north - to the arctic circle. Very exciting.

We have met many amazing people on our trip so far but it is always refreshing to see an old friend. Robin Child has been teaching for the last two years here in Koyuk and greeted us as we pulled in. We slept in her yurt last night, had a dinner of fresh caribou and seal oil and stayed up way past our bedtime, telling stories. 

I feel lucky to know so many amazing women. Women who are unbridled from the structure and confines of "traditional" womanhood and who make the life they wish to live. Rural Alaska seems to have an abundance of empowered women who are not afraid to chop wood, haul water, build boats, shoot guns, etc. and be both educators and students to the place they make there home in. Robin is one of these women. 

Again I/we are waiting for the mail plane. The remaining part for my bike has been on almost as wild a trip as we have been. Sent to Unalakleet, forwarded to Koyuk, missent to Shaktoolik, returned to Unalakleet and finally re-forwarded to Koyuk. Hope it makes it. 

One more food drop remains and if all goes well, the next post will be from above the Arctic Circle. 

 

Seward Peninsula

 

We've made it to Buckland, over the Seward Peninsula. This will be our last food drop before the circle and Kotzebue. Spent a few hours soaking in Granite Hotsprings and had my derailer pulley hand delivered by our friend Robin.

 

This morning we left Bear Creek shelter cabin early, in the most incredible ice fog. This landscape is so vast and devoid of forest and the fog added to the deep mystery of our surroundings. It broke by early afternoon and we rode an amazing trail into the village, where once again, as luck would have it, there was a potlatch going on, at the school.

 

This time it was a celebration of life and even though we stuck out like sore thumbs, it was less awkward and our presence was an accent to the theme. “Where you come from?” “Why you doing this?” “Are you scared?” With a mouthful of food, we try our best to answer these questions and start in with our own.

 

We have been eating well the whole trip but it seems to just get better the further north we get: white and black muktuk, caribou steak, caribou burger, foul soup, moose sausage, seal oil, akutaq, and lots of dry fish.

 

We're spending the night in the school and hope that the PO still has our box in the morning so we can hit the trail for the home stretch.

April Fools

“Buckland to Kotzebue is well traveled and should be a really good trail for you guys.” This is a statement we heard since Koyuk. As we drew nearer to Buckland the same sentiment was repeated and our confidence grew.

In Buckland, we met an older man who grew up in Candle and began driving dogs at an early age. Beyond giving us trail advice, he filled us with stories of his youth, growing up in the region and running dogs. Buckland has the honor of being the Alaskan community with the most dog teams (I believe per capita) than anywhere else.

The pertinent trail description was very clear and came from the lips of a well-traveled veteran. “Follow the Buckland River to the bay, cross the bay, follow the shore of the Baldwin Peninsula until you come to a shelter cabin where the trail will cross the peninsula. From there just follow the trail to Kotzebue.” His advice sounded straight forward and within our means. “And yes, it should be well marked and well traveled.” he said.

The river was windswept, free of snow and therefore very fast. When we reached the bay there was a fork in the trail; one went east across the ice and the other west, which seemed to follow the shore – perhaps to Candle or Deering. We headed east and crossed the bay, but rather than follow the shore, the trail went on land and headed east. Moose, herds of caribou and fox filled this beautiful valley but after a few miles of due east travel we stopped. “This seems wrong.” Kim said, and I agreed. For the first time on the trip, we backtracked and returned to the intersection.

Back at the fork, we headed west for a few miles but this too didn’t seem to fit the description – at all. The trail seemed to stay on the north side of the Seward Peninsula and we needed to cross the sea ice to the other side. Totally confounded, we returned, once again, to the intersection and hoped someone would be out, that could set us straight.

After an evening of meditation we convinced ourselves that the first trail seemed to make the most sense and once again we headed east. Past our previous turn-around we saw a herd of caribou in the many hundreds. We tried to be stealthy on our approach but they saw us and ran. When they did, it sounded like a roar of thunder and the light snow was kicked up into a cloud in their wake. Amazing.

Eventually we came to a shelter cabin. The morning was chilly so we went in, lit a fire and hoped to find clues to settle our uncertainty.  We found none. Our insecurity became oppressive but we decided to continue on. “Well no one has ever biked to Selawik either.” I joked.

Outside, the distant sound of an approaching snowmachine was welcome. We went out and waited for it. “Nope, this trail goes to Selawik.” The driver said. “You need to go back to the fork and follow it.” “Most Bucklanders have been using another trail that you will eventually intersect while crossing the bay.” Our sage wisdom had come from someone who had not been out this year and because of rough shore ice people had opted for a new route across the bay.

The next day we were on the east shore of the Baldwin Peninsula - heading north to our final destination. We were both excited to be within hours of completion. No one has ever done what we were doing and getting to Kotzebue, under our own steam, has been an ethereal goal for so long but I couldn’t help feeling a little sad too. This has become life; wake up and ride - stop and camp – repeat. The further north we go the better it gets, just like I imagined it would. I was tired but I wasn’t ready to stop.

In the early part of the day, two hunters stopped to inspect our bikes and inquire with the usual line of questions: “Where did you come from?” being the most common. Through the goggles, parka, hood and hat I thought I recognized one of the hunters; “Are you Seth Kantner?” I asked one of them. “Yes” he said.

Winters in Alaska are long and dark. As a result, I developed a love for reading at a young age. There are too many “favorite” authors of mine to list but when the categorization is whittled some, it becomes easier. Without question, if someone askes me what my favorite Alaskan books are, I respond, “‘Ordinary Wolves’ by Seth Kantner and ‘Shadows on the Koyukuk’ about Sidney Huntington.” We met the giants of Alaskan lore, while on the trail. Perfect.

Our next encounter was with a hunter returning to Buckland after delivering caribou meat to elders in Kotzebue. He wore the face of a man who lived life on the trail – sunburnt cheeks, well-worn clothing and a generous smile, that stretched to his ears. “Do you like muktuk?” he asked. “Yes we do.” He reached into his sled and opened an Alaska Commercial shopping bag and handed us a fat chunk of this precious energy food. At the next shelter cabin we ate nearly half of it and we didn’t need to snack for the rest of the day.

Because the Baldwin Peninsula is low elevation, the wind generators of Kotzebue were visible for hours. When we finally passed them and came to the end of the trail, at an intersection of road, we stopped to savor the moment and Kim began to cry. The little trail in Knik, where we had parked our car, 37 days earlier, had led us to the Arctic.

Beyond being a bike trip, this felt like something more. More than on any other trip I felt like we had tapped into something - something very hard to describe. It felt like we had tapped into the heart of Alaska, and it seemed strong and full of life.

 

Click here for slideshow. 

 

 

 

Food for winter cycling expeditions: DIY

In general food is important, but on extended wilderness trips the desire for it seems to occupy every minute of waking consciousness. It usually starts a few days into a trip, when your metabolism finally faces the reality of your energy demands. With physical activity taking up most of the day, ones stomach starts to feel like a furnace with no damper. Such an increase in caloric demand poses a challenge for the unsupported traveler, as this extra weight needs to be carried. So here we will answer one of our most frequently encountered questions:

 

‘What do you eat?’

 

The basic criteria for the food that we bring is that it is high in calories, compact, healthy, and easy to prepare. Common cultural assumptions of food fit for backcountry travel are, that it is inherently expensive, engineered with the latest technology, wrapped in special packaging, branded with an outdoor marketing strategy, or otherwise something that you would never eat on a regular day. Many instant meals designed for campers may be very lightweight, but they are often insufficient in calories and nutrients, especially considering how much they cost. From personal experience, they usually give me stomach upset, gas, and irregular bowels - not good while living in a small tent. Rarely in life will you ever appreciate food this much. Don’t ruin it by eating crap.

 

Ultimately our diets consist of very simple ingredients which I will share here, but we have also come up with a handful of special recipes and food preparations that have yielded great results. We begin preparing our trip food months before we embark. Our methods take extra care and time, but our food tastes great, fills us up, keeps us healthy, and our grocery bill doesn’t break the budget.

 

While on the trail, we cook hot breakfast and dinner along with a hot drink, often on a fire. This is also when we melt our drinking water. This year we are excited to be cooking on our Titanium Goat wood stove. During the day, stopping for lunch can be time consuming; using up precious daylight hours. Instead, we carry an arsenal of snackable foods and eat periodically when our body demands it. Feeling cold? Eat something. Tiered? East something. Mechanical difficulty? First, eat something. Cranky, discouraged, upset, or unsure about what to do? You got it. Food  is crucial to maintaining a level head as well as your physical condition. Having it on hand makes it easy to keep up with your body's demand and ultimately helps you retain heat, feel good and enjoy yourself.

 

Almost everything we bring can be found in a regular grocery store, but ideally you can find a lot of this stuff in bulk and save some money. After purchasing our food, we ration it out into vacuum packs or freezer zip-lock bags and ship it to post offices along our route.

 

Breakfast

 

For breakfast we almost always eat cream-of-wheat. Oats would substitute fine, we both just like cream-of-wheat more. Both the oats and the wheat mostly serve as a vessel for the higher calorie ingredients including butter or coconut oil, brown sugar, powdered milk, dried fruit, and nuts. We also drink tea or cowboy coffee. This year we will experiment with our coffee by grinding it extremely fine in an effort to imitate those instant espresso packs. Either way, just skip on the last gulp.

 

 

Lunch

 

Our daytime food includes dried salmon, dried fruit, nuts, trail mix, cheese, our homemade bars or store bought bars. I don’t have a preferred store bought bar, though Luna bars are one of my favorites. I like Cliff bars, but they are the consistency of a brick when frozen, so I stopped bringing them in the winter. Snickers bars have a lot of calories, but I don’t go with them exclusively because the sugar overdose is more than I can handle. We usually bring some kind of candy, and always chocolate, but overdoing the sugar has brought me to the verge of system failure on more than one trip. As with regular life, I recommend moderation.

 

Dried salmon is our best food. It is loaded with fat, protein and nutrients, is easy to eat anytime but can also be cooked with a meal. We catch it and process it ourselves. It has been a staple food for native people across the northern half of the continent for thousands of years, and has a proven credibility. Last July we caught our red (sockeye) salmon from the Kenai River with a dipnet. This is a wild salmon run and the fish are large and delicious. We fillet the fish and pack it in vacuum-sealed bags, and freeze it for storage. During the months before a trip we thaw and dry strips, in batches. Something that we want to experiment with is pemmican, which is a fat and nutrient dense food historically used in polar expeditions and is made from dried meat, melted fat, and dried fruit.  

 

We dry most of our own fruit, usually pears, apples and bananas. It’s a great way to utilize over-ripe or mealy fruit that would otherwise be thrown out. We buy cranberries, cherries and dates, and get shipments of tropical treats from Bjorn’s family’s farm in Kona. Fruit isn’t super packed with calories, but bringing fruit is important to me because it keeps things working, if you know what I mean.

 

Dinner

 

We believe in cooking delicious dinners and mix up the ingredients every night, to keep it interesting. For the base we usually cook polenta, orzo, pasta-tini, quinoa, or spaghetti. These cook fast, expand greatly, and again, serve as a vessel for all the other goods. For flavor and salts we use bouillon cubes, powdered milk, nutritional yeast, powdered sauces and gravies of various sorts. Generous amounts of cheese (sharp cheddar and gorgonzola are our favorites), butter, and/or coconut oil are key for providing the fat that your body needs. We also add veggies that we dry ourselves and may put in any combination of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, broccoli, kale, onions, or cabbage. Dried salmon can be added as well and re-constitutes nicely. A very helpful trick we have learned is to bring instant mashed potatoes and add them at the end to make your meal the right consistency. Most backcountry travelers have experienced soupy dinners; this is an easy way to avoid that problem. For drinks, a cup of hot chocolate is a nice end of the day treat, herbal tea, or miso soup with a pad of butter is also delicious.

 

For cookware we share a titanium pot and each have a titanium mug, a spoon or spork, and a 64 oz. thermos. I carry a fixed handle Buck knife that I love and use for many things, including food. Bjorn brings a leatherman, again for many uses, but the pliers are great for handling the hot pot and it has a knife. On many trips we also bring a steel bowl that fits inside the pot, but this winter we are forgoing it to save weight and space. We either pass the pot back and forth, or dole food into a mug.

 

Especial emphasis on hydration is required for winter travelers. You need to drink a lot of water to stay warm, prevent frostbite, and keep from getting cramps. We bring Emergen-C and drink it during the day, in attempt to maintain proper electrolyte balance. Remember, you’re asking a lot of you body, so give it what it needs. Drinking water seems simple enough, but the time and fuel required to melt water makes it tempting to go with less and the cold temperatures don’t make it particularly enjoyable. But the truth is that your metabolism requires water to function and keep you warm. So drink up. The best metric to understand if you are properly hydrated is the color of your urine. If it’s clear, you are hydrated. If it’s dark yellow, you need to drink more.

 

One trick we employ is to start the day with a full 64oz thermos of boiling or near boiling water. When we stop to drink, we add snow to our mug and melt it with the hot water. This is an easy way to stretch a smaller volume of water. It is also preferred to drink water as close to body temperature as possible, when it is cold, and boiling water mixed with snow is an easy way to achieve the desired temperature.

 

I encourage anyone who reads this to experiment with your own strategy. Everyone’s body is unique and trying things out is the best way to come up with a diet that works for you. I have personally learned that a lot of fat is really good for me, but that I need to get it from multiple sources (not just butter), that I have a threshold for sugar that should not be crossed, and that balancing my diet with fruit and veggies improves my performance.  I would have never learned these things without trial, and yeah, a little discomfort. Hopefully this advice will streamline your experience.

Kim & Bjørn

Kim's footwear for cold weather cycling

Kim has written a blog post about cold weather footwear.

Frostbite is unacceptable and toes are of special concern for winter cyclists. Considering the negative consequences, I have put a lot of thought and trial into my footwear system to be used in conjunction with platform pedals. I have tested this system in temperatures as low as -30º and it works.

The concept behind my set up is a thick layer of insulation that is water proofed inside and out. Waterproofing protects your insulated layers from getting soaked from your sweat and water from outside. The insulation will sustain its heat retaining ability for prolonged days on the trail.

 

The first layer that goes on the foot is a ‘sacrificial’ wool liner sock. This sock is thin and ends up getting wet from your sweat, and basically serves for comfort. On top of the liner goes a vapor barrier sock. Bjørn and I use Sephenson Warmlite, and had our VBL (Vapor Barrier Liner) socks customized to be tall, as to fit with our tall outer boots. Over the vapor barrier goes a warm, thick sock.

 

The VBL sock is a brilliant idea and can be applied to any footwear system. The purpose of this sock is to protect your insulation from your own sweat.

 

Unlike other parts of your body, it is impossible to temperature regulate your feet to keep them from sweating while on the go. Your foot will sweat until it is saturated. Without the vapor barrier, the insulation from your thick sock and your boot will wick sweat away from your foot, and your foot will continue sweating until your insulation is saturated. Sweat wicking is advertised in outdoor clothing as an advantage. But in cold temperatures, water wicked into the clothing doesn’t evaporate and disappear - it freezes. Clothes can become ruined until you get a chance to dry them out.

 

With the vapor barrier on, your foot will sweat until the liner sock is wet, then it will stop. Your insulative layers are safe.

 

On top of my three socks, I wear two boots. The first is a high-top Loben. This is a soft-soled felt boot that is very warm. This is the most debatable component of my set up, and I may experiment with something else in the future. The Loben is, in my opinion, not a very good boot standing alone. The sole is unsupportive, and the felt provides no protection from water or wind. But worn with this combination, it provides a lot of insulation and warmth.

 

On top of the Loben I wear an insulated Neo over-boot. This boot provides more insulation, a sole with excellent traction, and waterproofing against the outside elements. The kind that I have has a fold out gaiter that reaches to the knee. Mine are not studded, because that would be annoying on my bike pedals and add weight. The sole is pretty good on ice as is. There is room to put a chemical heat pack inside during extreme cold.

 

With all this on my feet, I feel like a storm trooper. But overall I can ride my bike and walk in comfort, without feeling cold. While I have more limited range of motion and agility, the sacrifice is completely worth it to me.

 

If you are considering a similar set up, my recommendation would be to get boots that fit well; not too small and not too big. If they are too small you will be compressing the insulation and losing heat. If they are too big, your foot will slip around inside the boot and it will decrease your efficiency, waste energy and maybe drive you a little crazy. My Lobens are a size too big and it is regretful. I took measures to fit them to my foot, but could have avoided it by getting a better fitting boot.


Kim McNett