North Slope By Fat-Bike



North Slope by Fat-Bike or The White Gas For White Guys Expedition

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Deadhorse to Trailhead

Over 20 years ago, my friend and mentor, Roger Cowles, told me a story about being in Utqiagvik (Barrow) and being able to ski to Wainwright in one continuous push – a distance of over 100 miles. Roger had been in Utqiagvik to help with a bowhead whale survey. The snow, while he was there, underwent a thaw and freeze cycle, making the surface rock hard; he saw an opportunity to ski far and fast. Roger’s story infected me all those years ago. Since then I have hoped to be available to attempt something similar on the Arctic Slope of Alaska with a fat-bike.

Early in the morning on the 6th of May, after pouring my first cup of coffee, I checked my Facebook and saw photos from my friend Qaiyaan, an Utqiagvik buddy. He’d been out on the country traveling by snowmachine and his images revealed what looked like ideal conditions for fast travel on snow over great distances. I immediately messaged him to confirm. “Yea dude, this is right snow conditions, u could have bikes for miles and Fucken miles,” came his response.

Now all I needed was a partner willing to drop everything and join me on a fools adventure. Hey, want to cross a couple hundred miles of the loneliest region of Alaska? No one has tried it on bike before, the snow may melt out at any minute, there are bears, we have to get past the hyper-secure-industrial-oil-lease-lands with a firearm and once we are underway we won’t see a soul. And we need to leave day after tomorrow. It should be fun.

Chief steward of the RV Siquiliaq and my long-time BFF, Mark Teckenbrock, was home in Seward with a couple weeks remaining between hitches. He took the bait and enthusiastically accepted the quixotic invitation.

Two days later we were on an Alaska Airlines jet to Prudhoe Bay with our loaded bikes and tummies full of butterflies.  

In Deadhorse—the industrial community on the North Slope of Alaska, full of man-camps and mostly out-of-region-oil-company-workers—Mark and I stood out like sore thumbs. Many people cycle up to Deadhorse along the Dalton Highway in the summer months but in the still-wintry month of May, our fat-bikes and Patagonia garb looked out of place amongst the Carhart-and-steel-toed-boot uniform of the oil-filed workers.

After putting our bikes together in a truck-warming bay at the airport, we rode across the street to the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. We had no idea how we were going to get past the secure oil fields and to the beginning of the trail we planned to follow. We hoped to get some information. On wilderness expeditions, I have come to depend upon local knowledge. In this instance, we were beginning our trip in a bustling community where no one is local and none had information. “CWAT Trail? Never heard of it.”

The hour was late; we’d both spent the previous evening frantically packing and had risen early to drive to Anchorage. We decided to get a meal and a room at the hotel and try to figure out this stubborn and atypical hurdle in the morning.

“Are you guys from Seward?” the security guard asked us as we walked into his office the following morning. “Yes,” we said. Although neither Mark nor I recognized him, we saw this as a sign that we had an above average chance of getting past the security impediment. Our hopes were quickly dashed. “Not a chance,” came Zack, the security guard’s, reply, after we explained what we were trying to do. “The only way to get through the oil field is if you have an identification badge for both BP and Conoco Philips, which you’d have to fly back to Anchorage to get.”

Zack was willing, however, to see what he could do but he gave little reason to hope. He called one superior after another to let us explain our situation and need over the speakerphone.  From the higher-ups we received variations on the theme of “No,” and “Hell No.” Our prospects were looking grim until our helpful security guard told us of one option that remained: a transport from a North Slope Borough employee.

At the main borough office in Utqiagvik, Brower Frantz answered the phone. After explaining our situation and who we were, Brower told us that he might be able to help us reach the trailhead beyond the secure oilfield areas. A few hours later we were in a pickup truck, with our clearances and a security truck escort, in front, carrying our firearm, which we’d brought for bear protection. A more surreal beginning to an expedition I have never met.

Lost and Found and Lost and Found Again

After passing through the BP oil filed lease area we met a Conoco Philips security driver and again gave him our gun to shuttle ahead of us. “They do this for the locals, too,” Tom Martell, our gracious borough driver told us. “Even bb guns are forbidden.” Typically, I prefer carrying bear spray over firearms for bear protection but the North Slope is a windy place. Brown bears were awake from their winter hibernation and although we’d be traveling on an inland trail, polar bears exist in this region. My friend Billy had lent me his 4” barrel 500 Smith and Wesson revolver – the largest handgun they make.

When we reached the end of our industrial road trip, the two trucks stopped and we got out. A post-apocalyptic Mad Max movie script swirled in my mind. We thanked Tom, unloaded our now dusty bikes from the bed of the truck and waved goodbye as they drove away.

The profound and ominous sense of holy shit, we are fucking out here was quickly erased once we hit the trail. The conditions were exactly what we’d hoped they’d be – rock hard snow, verging on ice, with a strong easterly tail wind. The temperature was in the mid-20s; the afternoon sun was on our faces and my trepidations evaporated into bliss as we rode along at top speed.

The CWAT Trail is a recent undertaking by the North Slope Borough. For the last two winters, the borough has groomed and maintained an overland route from Utqiagvik to Deadhorse to allow residents an alternative for bringing vehicles or supplies to the extremely remote and most northerly community in the United States. Beginning in February, the route is punched in with piston bullies. Groups of Utqiagvik residents drive trucks and cars up from Fairbanks or Anchorage to Deadhorse, and then over the tundra on this nearly-300-hundred-mile fleeting snow trail. By the time we began our trip all the caravans had wrapped up for the season and all the markers had been removed. The trail, however was obvious as day.

Before leaving home, I’d contacted the borough and told them of our plan. I talked first with search and rescue and then with someone from the land-use department. They graciously approved our non-commercial journey and had sent me a low-res satellite image with the route overlaid on it. The majority of the trail is straight west but then turns north for the last 70ish miles. In the corner of the image, text read, “Proposed 2019 route.” As Mark and I sped along, neither of us thought much of the fact that we were beginning to trend south. We’d seen no other trail and the one we were on was a veritable highway.

Although we’d not crawled into our sleeping bags until after midnight, I woke with a start at 6:15 and fired up the MSR stove to start melting snow. With so much ground to cover before the next thaw, which could come any time, we needed to make the most of each precious day.

Minutes into our early morning ride we encountered snowdrifts that entirely covered the trail. Riding over drift snow is energy intensive and slow going on a fat-bike. For five miles the drifts persisted, as did our confounding southbound compass heading. We were beginning to worry that we’d somehow gotten onto another trail but kept justifying our foreword push because neither of us had seen any sign of another trail. “Maybe there is open water on the Colville River and they re-routed to cross it further up?” I offered. Around 2:00 in the afternoon we began to worry in earnest.

“Yes, you’ve gone too far south,” our friend Hig confirmed over our InReach. He sent us coordinates, as did our friend Qaiyaan in Utqiagvik. We were on an oil company exploratory trail, headed for the Brooks Range. Somehow we had missed the trail. By the time we were certain that we needed to backtrack, a strong wind from the northeast had manifest. Knowing that the wind was supposed to blow itself out by morning, we set up shelter and sat it out.

Once we made it back over the snowdrift section of trail, the following morning, and back to our first camp, we saw a split in the trail that we’d missed the first time. We knew it wasn’t the trail we ultimately wanted but it headed northwest rather than northeast, as the trail we’d followed in did. Taking this trail, we reasoned, would be better than the original one. As long as we continued north we were bound to encounter the east-west CWAT trail we wanted, and this trail would veer us more to the west. Within an hour we’d found what we were looking for – the westbound CWAT. Once we were lost but now we were found. Our confidence had taken a blow and we’d used up precious fuel but we felt our spirits lift as we began to zip along again, in the right direction.

My mind had just begun to relax a little when another text came through Mark’s InReach. We’d been on the westbound trail for six miles when our friend from Utqiagvik sent a message saying we were, yet again, on the wrong trail. I punched in a short and succinct reply - “Fuck!” Sure enough, the GPS waypoints showed that we were south of the trail by about 5-miles. “There should be a Y,” he said, “where they merge.” He sounded uncertain; we were crushed.

We continued west for another mile until we saw a wide-open patch of terrain. Tentatively, I veered my bike off the trail to the north. The open snowfield barely supported my weight atop my bike so we let out tire pressure to what I consider stupid-low and we began hunting through the open tundra for the CWAT chimera. 

Hours later, exhausted and demoralized, we gave up. We’d stumble-fucked through bare tundra, slushy bogs, and open snowfields and were further north than all the waypoints. We were in terrible terrain for a trail to be. To the west, as far as we could see, was a pasture of willows poking through the snow - horrible ground even without a bike to travel through. We pitched our shelter and drank Mark’s celebratory airplane whiskey. All seemed lost.

“We looked and looked but can’t find it. Pretty sure we were on CWAT but now r worried about not having enough fuel,” I texted to my friend Qaiyaan in the morning. “I’ll see if my buddy from Nuiqsut can run you out some gas. You got some money to pay him?” From where we were, the village of Nuiqsut was about 10 miles away in a straight line. Before replying to Qaiyaan, Mark and I had a discussion. Although it seemed like our trip was off to a shaky start, I lobbied that we take the opportunity to re-fuel and carry on. He agreed.

“My buddy Thomas Napageak is a hella AF hunter,” Qaiyaan said in his last text. Good, I thought. Hunters know their way around the country and we needed some fucking answers. An hour later Mark and I were slowly making our way back south when we saw Thomas’ snowmachine approaching. As he drew near he ascended a bluff and it looked as though he may miss us. “Plug your ears,” I told Mark. I took the 500 out, pointed it into the air, as far away from my ears as possible and fired a shot. My right ear rang and I went half deaf for several minutes but the cannon blast had worked.

“Yea, you were on CWAT,” Thomas said. As Mark filled our fuel bottles with the white gas, Thomas snapped a photo with his smartphone and walked above his snowmachine holding it above his head to find a signal. “You posting that?” I asked. “Yea. I wrote white gas for white guys,” he said, and we all busted up laughing. After being lost and found and lost and found again, we had fuel. Furthermore, our expedition had been given a name – White Gas For White Guys.

Two Days of Near-Bliss

“We are exactly atop Hig’s waypoint,” Mark said as we stopped on the west side of the Colville River to drink from our thermoses and eat a bite. Over the night it had snowed and for the first time on our trip there had been no wind – rare phenomena in the Arctic. The inch of light snow atop the hard trail slowed our speed some but the conditions were still way above average for efficient snow travel by bike.

West of the Colville, we entered terrain unlike any I have ever experienced – absolutely flat, white with snow, and yet beautiful beyond description. Ptarmigans cackled and the sun shone strong as we rode on mile after mile. “This may be the closest we’ll ever get to experiencing what it’s like to be on the moon, eh?”

For two long days we traveled toward our destination, uninterrupted by route-finding or serious decision-making. Signs of the impending spring breakup were everywhere though. Each day we saw more and more migratory geese, swans and cranes making their way to their spring nesting grounds and each day more of the bare tundra exposed itself.

We were west of Arctic Alaska’s greatest lake, Lake Teshekpuk, when it began to warm up above freezing and the trail started to become sloppy. The new snow that had fallen when we were still east of the Colville was now, also, becoming a pain. During the heat of the afternoon, the skiff of snow melted but not entirely. As the snow re-froze, the surface morphed into a crispy verglas that insulated the softer snow beneath. We took out more tire pressure and nosily crunched onward.

Although it was only 5:00 PM, we decided to camp early on our third afternoon since leaving the Colville. “Let’s set the alarm for 2:00 AM and cross our fingers that it freezes tonight.” As we made coffee, the inside of our shelter, at 3:30, was still wet with condensation and outside we could make slushy snowballs. It hadn’t frozen. A damp and chilly fog settled in as we rode away at 5.

“How are you guys doing?” Came a message from Brower Frantz in Utqiagvik. We didn’t know what to say.

As we took more and more tire pressure out, we slowed to nearly walking speed and often had to dismount to push beyond the worst of the rotten patches. By 11 they were all rotten patches. Crossing a channel of the Ikpikpuk River, I stomped on and compressed the slush to keep my calf-high over-boots from being overtaken with the flowing open water. West of the river we found a dry patch of ground and sat down to discuss our options.

“You are super close to my cabin,” Qaiyaan’s InReach message said. He sent us coordinates and told us to head there. “It’s only a couple miles from where you are. There’s food and beds. I’ll come get you tomorrow evening.”

Saved

We were enveloped in thick pea soup fog as we sat on our little dry clump oasis on the shore of the Ikpikpuk. “We should reply to Brower, eh?” Mark punched in a response to his question, how you doing. A few minutes later, Brower replied and said he’d come retrieve us. This guy, whom we’d never met in person, was willing to finish his work day and head out into the fog and rotten snow for a 3 to 4 hour snowmachine trip to our location and give us a ride into Utqiagvik. “Quyanaq*. Thank you, Brower.”

For the first time on our trip we had access to dead willow branches and bits of driftwood. We built a fire to help ward off the damp and chilly air as we waited. Late in the evening, Brower sent another message, “Still getting everything together. Will leave town around 11.” Mark and I had started our day at 2:30 so we decided to set up the shelter and get a few hours of shut-eye.

We sprung awake as the sound of Brower’s machine drew near. We greeted him with groggy enthusiasm but needed a few minutes to pack everything away for what was bound to be a bumpy sled ride. He’d brought several 30-gallon containers of fuel for his cabin, which was less than three miles from our location. “I’ll go drop this off and come back in a minute,” he said. By the time he returned we were packed and bundled up, wearing every item of clothing we’d brought.

At our first pit stop, Mark and I pulled out our sleeping bags. When we resumed the trail we both crawled inside them, boots and all. Our goggles quickly misted over from the fog but we hunkered down and took in the experience.

Utqiagvik

The new day was in full swing when Brower pulled his snowmachine into Utqiagvik. The day before the entire community had melted out and the streets were bare gravel and mud, and slicks of water pooled in every depression. City workers were busy throughout the community pumping water away from homes and streets.

As Mark and I unpacked ourselves and bikes from the sled, Brower went inside his house to change. When he came out he had news: “They just caught a whale right in town.” The open sea was less than a couple hundred yards offshore – an eerie, unnatural and obvious indication of our global climate crisis. Until very recently, the sea ice extended 20 or more miles out and whalers had to make trails through and over the hummock ice to set whale camp. “We’ll meet you at the Top of the World Hotel for breakfast,” we told Brower and gave him money for gas and our best guess at the value of his time.

All three of us looked haggard as we stumbled into a booth at the restaurant. Our poofy eyes and incoherent conversations helped inform our waiter that we wanted coffee and to keep it coming. 

Reflection

Many obvious reflections can be made about our trip to the North Slope but none of them interest me too much. The main take-away for me is that I was able to experience an environment that I have been intrigued by for longer than I can remember, and it was more incredible than I could have imagined. This trip and experience gave me a small taste of the region’s moods, its wildlife, and, most importantly, its amazing people.

There are so many things that go into trying a new route with atypical equipment like a fat-bike but nothing teaches me more than giving it a shot. What we know now verses before we began is immeasurable. I plan to use this newfound wisdom to the best of my ability for next time.

*Quyanaq = Inupiat word for thank you

Salsa Beargrease: First Impressions

Beargrease meets bear 

Beargrease meets bear 

 

A turning point, in the not too distant past, was crossed without my fully noticing it. My life as a cyclist has been largely one of cobbling parts together from one old beater to the next, with the occasional splurge on a fancy component. Now I find myself riding a 23-pound carbon fiber Salsa fat-bike.

 

The first thing I noticed about the Salsa Beargrease, once I assembled it and took it for the first spin, was the how light it felt underneath me. My immediate playground is the beach below my cabin, which is comprised of technical slabs of shale, seams of coal, loose gravel, big boulders and sand. I love riding this stretch of beach because it requires attention and focus to navigate and no two rides through are ever the same.  Upon the Beargrease, it was a whole new experience of delicate maneuverability.

 

A lightweight fat-bike feels unstoppable on rough terrain.

A lightweight fat-bike feels unstoppable on rough terrain.

The idea, as I understand it, is that fat-bikes should float. In terrain where traditional mountain bikes would wallow and sink, a fat-bike comes to life. It stands to reason that a lighter fat-bike will perform better in soft riding conditions and so far this is proving to be true.

 

The core of my interest and motivation is expeditions – long wilderness routes where self-reliance, adaptability, and creativity are required. I love technical riding for the confidence it builds. I love micro-adventures for the habituation and preparedness it heightens. I love commuting for the daily dose of lactic acid and the feeling of wellbeing that comes from hauling myself around under my own steam. However, in the back of my mind these excursions are all mental and physical exercises for next big trip.

 

Tucked in for the night.

Tucked in for the night.

Last week my partner Kim and I spent 5 days bikepacking with the new bikes. Our goal was to mimic the conditions we expect to encounter on our upcoming six to eight-week wilderness expedition. We wanted soft, technical terrain with a water component and occasional bikewacking/hauling. We found what we were looking for, and in both our estimations the Beargrease gets an A+.

 

It is often stated that steel is the best choice for road touring. One of the reasons is because if anything should crack on the frame it is the easiest material to repair. I don’t foresee myself carrying a welder anytime soon but I can envision carrying sandpaper, rubbing alcohol, two-part epoxy and carbon fiber patch material. My hunch is, this repair kit will remain unused and at the bottom of the pack but there is no other frame material I am aware of that someone in the middle of nowhere can field repair as readily as carbon fiber.

 

Ready for assembly after a short trip in the packraft.

Ready for assembly after a short trip in the packraft.

In and out of the packraft with the bike takes a minute no matter how efficient you are. Through axles are not only stiff and secure, they also shave time during the wheel on and off transitions that occur regularly on summer bike/raft trips.  Leaving the axle in the fork with the wheel off also seems more secure and sturdy during transport.

 

Another feature, which I approve of, is the lack of attachment points on the bike. There are no water bottle cage or rack mounts and in this instance I think this is a good thing. Our plan is to use two or three Relevate Designs bags on the bikes while underway this summer but we will also be carrying large Mountain Laurel backpacks. We intend to take all gear off the bike when we are bushwacking or are otherwise unable to ride. When conditions become favorable we’ll strap the bags and packraft back on. Holes in the frame in this instance will just be places for water to get in which would add unwanted weight and corrode moving parts.

 

Kim crosses a shallow creek.

Kim crosses a shallow creek.

One five day trip and several weeks of riding around on the Beargrease have led me to believe that I’ll be comfortable for the long haul. Now that all the micro-adjustments to the bike have been made, the tires have been kicked and several coats of mud have been applied, it feels like it’s mine, and it feels ready for adventure.   

Simple and elegant. 

Simple and elegant. 

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. 

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. 

 

 

 

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