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 Sikuliaq 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

Fat-Bike to the Arctic - Gear Review

I wrote this gear review after our Fat-Bike to the Arctic expedition, in 2014, in which Kim McNett and I became the first people to fat-bike from Knik to Kotzebue - 1,100 miles. We learned and experienced much on this expedition. Here are my reflections on the gear we employed. -- Originally published on Ground Truth Trekking

Sea-ice between Shaktoolik and Koyuk. 

Sea-ice between Shaktoolik and Koyuk. 

Fat-bike to the Arctic: gear

We have returned home from our fat-bike expedition to the arctic and it seems almost like a dream. If not for the photos I might not believe it actually happened. Our luck and good fortune were beyond comprehension and the people we encountered without equal.

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 1,100 + mile, winter fat-bike trip to the arctic of Alaska.

Shelter and stove:

Mountain Laurel shelter and Titanium Goat wood stove.

Mountain Laurel shelter and Titanium Goat wood stove.

Before we embarked, Kim and I spent time trialing our Mountain Laurel, floor-less, mid shelter with the Titanium Goat, wood burning, barrel stove but this arrangement was still largely theoretical.  After 5 weeks of near daily use, we are beyond theory and into the realm of the actual.

We opted to rely solely on the wood stove for our water making and food cooking and left our MSR Whisperlite with friends to send if we decided we needed it. Using the wood stove to make water and cook on takes longer than a gas stove but our routine with the stove proved to be a nearly ideal arrangement.

In the evening we would both work together to erect the shelter. This chore consisted of strapping together two collapsible ski poles, handle to handle, with the tips on the end. We used two Voile straps, which are stretchy and very secure. (More about Voile straps later.) Then we would harvest four stakes from whatever was available. Typically, this was willow, spruce or birch branches. Then, Kim would hold the center pole within the shelter, while I set the stakes. Once the shelter was secure, we would either cut snow blocks or scoop loose snow around the perimeter “skirt” that I had sewn onto the shelter. 

With the shelter erected, we each set out on our individual chores, which alternated daily. One of us would assemble the collapsible bow saw and harvest enough wood for the evening and morning. Relying on the wood stove establishes parameters as to where we decided to set a camp. We preferred to be in spruce forests, as dead spruce is the best fuel for the stove. That said, dead and dry willow or alder works very well too. The only fuel we tried to avoid was birch. Even when birch is well cured, it still contains moisture and does not burn hot enough. A typical strategy was to cut down long pieces and chuck them near the shelter. Once a healthy pile had been gathered we would make ourselves comfortable and cut the wood into sub-22 inch lengths. Lastly, we would bring the wood inside the shelter and stack it into a pile.

Simultaneously, the other person would lay out the inside of the shelter with sleeping pads and begin setting up the stove. The collapsible, two-pound, titanium woodstove takes a little practice to set up efficiently. Thankfully, our trip began with unseasonably warm temperatures. By the time we experienced our first evening of -20º we were well organized and stove assembly was a painless task. 

I always bring a paperback book on trips. This time it was ‘Homage to Catalonia’, by George Orwell. Every page that has been read becomes the evening fire starter. As soon as the fire was lit we would fill the pot and mug with snow, add a little water from the thermos and begin the task of making hot drinks, dinner and water for the evening and next day. Rarely, if ever, was there a time, when the fire was going, that one or two vessels was not on the stove. Once dinner had been consumed and water made we would crawl into our bags and let the fire go out.

In the morning, whoever had been to one to make dinner (‘cookie’) woke early, relit the stove, started coffee, water and breakfast. This lead-time on the morning fire was perfect for many reasons: drying the shelter of frost and moisture from the sleeping bags was resolved and by the time coffee and breakfast was ready, gear and clothing were warm and dry. Even in -20º, we were able to comfortably do our inside chores glove free, in our long underwear.

We eventually learned some handy tricks involving the stove that made life better. By placing spruce boughs under the stove and piling snow around, we were able to keep the stove from melting down into the snow. Willow branches also worked. When disassembling the stove in the morning, we dumped the ashes and embers in a pile outside. Before we were ready to ride, we would warm our hands for one last time on the embers before smothering them. Starting the day with warm hands is a remarkable treat.

There are very few downsides to the woodstove but it’s worth mentioning them and hopefully they will be resolved before our next trip. The most negative aspect of the woodstove, in a sil-nylon shelter is obvious – embers. Most of the embers that made it out of the stovepipe either burn out or were blown away before they came in contact with the nylon but after 5-weeks of use, there are more than a handful of little holes. Whenever we slept in a cabin, I would bring the shelter inside and sew up the holes. Most were smaller than a pinhead but a few were pinky diameter.

I would like to experiment with a spark arrester, which could be a piece of fluffed steel wool. Maintaining a good draw is very important so this method would require experimentation.

The other drawback to the stove is that the actual barrel is made of very thin titanium. Over the course of the trip, this material became malformed from setting the pots atop it. Titanium Goat has another stove design that turns this concept 90º, with the thicker, non-bendable titanium on the top and bottom and the thinner sheet metal on the walls. However, our barrel stove was remarkable and improvements, in this case, would be nice but not necessary.

Saws:

We carried two saws and one 21-inch replacement bow saw blade, which we never needed. The primary woodcutting saw was a Coghlan’s, folding bow saw. Our other saw was a T handled, stainless steel Gerber, with finer teeth. For us, these two saws complimented each other and we used them both, most days.

The Coghlan folding saw is a lightweight, aluminum “bow saw” saw with two pivot points and a very simple and secure tensioning apparatus. Once the saw is assembled the blade is very taught and thus, it cuts extremely well. On a few nights we opted to sleep in shelter cabins. Trail ethics dictate that you leave the shelter better than when you came, so we always tried to replenish more wood than we burnt. Within most cabins, hanging on a nail, are conventional bow saws with longer blades than ours. Because the tension on these saw blades is not taught, we almost always preferred ours.

The T handled saw had multiple purposes, but mostly it lived inside the shelter and was used to shorten pieces of wood, as needed. We also used it as a snow saw to cut blocks for anchoring the shelter when the snow was compact and would bring a few blocks inside for water making.

Both of these saws are light, compact and effective. Since there are pivot points on the folding saw, I carried some replacement hardware and I did replace one pin with a bolt and a locking nut. I see no reason to improve or change anything about the saws for future trips.

Airlite Snowshoes:

Because of our strange winter, here in Homer, we were never able to give our Airlite Snowshoes a proper test before we left. During our trip we experienced only one storm. Thankfully, not much snow accumulated and we were always able to ride. However, having the snowshoes is insurance and we never debated sending them home.

Because of our stove, we always needed to camp near wood. One evening on the Yukon River we were ready to camp but the trail ran straight down the middle of the massively wide river. Finally we decided to march at right angles off the trail, to the bank and camp. Kim decided to try the snowshoes for the ¼-mile bike push and I tried the Alpacka ‘sled’, without snowshoes.

Unpacking the snowshoes, blowing-up and pumping, with a bike pump, takes around 5 minutes. Once Kim was strapped in, she began pushing and was able to fine-tune her gait to avoid collision with the bike and said it felt very natural. The floatation these snowshoes provide is substantial. The snowpack in this instance was dust on breakable crust with rotten and bottomless snow underneath – terrible walking snow. She stayed on top and was able to reach the shore without strain.

Again, because of our no snow winter we never tried our Alpacka ‘sleds’ before embarking. Even though they are much less heavy than a packraft we sent them home after that evening on the river.

It may be that in certain kinds of snow the ‘sled’ would work better but in cold, dry snow the ‘sled’ offered tremendous resistance. It felt like I was dragging a 4x8 sheet of plywood over sand.

We are back to the drawing board for a lightweight and compact, emergency sled that can haul bike and gear. Since pushing the bike with the Airlite Snowshoes proved to be successful we discussed the new strategy: if riding becomes impossible - push, if pushing becomes impossible – inflate snowshoes and push, if pushing with snowshoes becomes impossible and the situation becomes dire – abandon bike, drag a dry-bag with sleeping bag and food, and snowshoe to safety. Thankfully we never had to make these kinds of choices but it is important to consider options – options that don’t include being rescued by others.

Sleeping Gear:

Up to now, we have always used a vapor barrier within our sleeping bags to prevent our sweat from corrupting the down and becoming heavy and eventually lousy with ice buildup. Sleeping in a non-permeable sack or rain gear within the sleeping bag is clammy and no fun.  Up to now, vapor barriers have been the only solution - until we started using the wood stove.

We both use -20º down sleeping bags and two pads – one close-cell foam and one inflatable, air mattress.

Our shelter is floorless, so we first lay down the close-cell pad and then the air mattress atop it. This configuration is warm and comfortable and since the foam lies on the snow it never accumulates moisture. When we felt ambitious or the resources were available, we would cut spruce boughs and lay them down under the pads. For the most part, we have found this to be an unnecessary step. 

I used a ¾ Therma-Rest, Z pad and a full length Therma-Rest, Neo-Air. Kim used a full length Ridge Rest and a ¾ Neo Air. Having at least one full-length pad is important because this ensures your sleeping bag is completely off the snow.

Clothing:

Body types and metabolism vary widely – this is very apparent between Kim and I. Often I am sweating and removing layers while she is adding another and cracking a hand warmer. Knowing specifically what clothing to bring is something everyone has to discover for themselves and trial and error is the only answer. However, there are some basic ideas that we both adhere to.

Layering is the primary strategy. Being ready to remove layers before you become too hot or adding them when getting cold should become instinctual.

We have included our itemized list of clothing and there is not too much more that can be said about our basic clothing but there are a few individual pieces I will discuss in detail.

I have found that the outer shell can be very thin and light as long as it’s windproof. Raingear, for me, is way too heavy and I eventually sweat. I use Patagonia Houdini top and bottom and find them to be near perfect. They protect from wind and breathe very well. I like them to be oversized so I can add as many layers underneath as necessary.

Modern hi-tech fabrics are amazing and getting better all the time but traditional Alaskan clothing also has its place on our trips. We both use fur mittens, fur saddle covers and ruffs. When the wind is blowing and it’s really cold nothing works as well as fur. I used wolverine for the ruff on my windbreaker, seal mittens and beaver saddle cover. Kim used wolf for her ruff, beaver mittens, a sheepskin saddle cover and a rabbit fur hat. A remarkable feature of fur is that moisture freezes onto it but rather than permeate, it breaks off and is as good as new without excessive care.

Proper footwear is tremendously important for winter cyclists. The basic idea we employ begins with a thin, wool liner sock, knee high vapor barrier sock, thick wool sock, insulated boot and a waterproof mukluk. This system keeps moisture out of the insulation from both outside, e.g. overflow and from within, e.g. sweat.  One very important consideration when fitting boots is that they are not tight fitting. Frostbite is often brought on by poor circulation and tight boots are to be avoided at all costs.

Bags:

My $20 thrift store sewing machine has proved to be one of the most valuable tools I own. Before embarking on our trip, the kitchen table was transformed into a sweatshop as I labored over clothing modifications, new mittens, hats and bags for the bike.

For our bikes I sewed frame bags that fit within the main triangle of the frame. I sewed them to be as wide as possible without colliding with knees, while riding. Before we left, we sent 9 food drops along our route that each contained roughly 5 days worth of food. Fitting the bulk of that food into the frame bag was the goal. We also use ‘feed bags’ on our handlebars for our daytime snacks. Beyond needing a little more capacity, the ‘feed bags’ are great in their ease of access for eating on the go. 

We each used one rear rack and had one dry-bag strapped atop of it. Mine contained clothing and the shelter. Under the rack, I strapped the snowshoes and on the side I carried the small tool kit.

On the handlebar, I used a harness system, of my own design, which carried a double end dry bag that I made from waterproof flooring of an old tent. This dry bag contained my sleeping bag, down parka, down vest and insulated over pants. Openings on both ends of the dry bag is useful, as I would pack the sleeping bag in the middle and have over garments on both ends. If I needed one or both layers, the dry bag was still centered and well secured to the harness. On the outside of the harness I sewed wide Velcro straps that held my Z-Rest sleeping pad and another small pouch that carried sunglasses and goggles.

Beyond these bags I carried a ‘gas tank’ bag on the top of my top tube and another small bag below my saddle, on the frame. These bags carried the sewing kit, small parts, twine and odds and ends for field repairs.

Tools:

Pairing down the tool kit consists of trying to anticipate what might actually happen or go wrong while underway and being reasonably prepared for a flat tire, loose bolts, ripped tent, punctured sleeping pad, etc. etc… You can never be fully prepared for everything that might go wrong but with a few multi-tools and some ingenuity many issues on the trail can be solved.

Beyond spare twine, webbing, buckles and Velcro we also carried a couple spare Voile straps. These straps were in use on our bikes to securely lash snowshoes and snowshoe crampons to the rear rack as well as lashing the ski poles together each night for the center pole of the tent. The strap also became useful for me when my oversized water bottle cage broke. Without the cage I had no good way of carrying my 64oz thermos. By padding the sharp metal of the broken cage, with a chunk of sleeping pad foam and lashing it back onto the frame with the Voile strap I was able to continue using the cage. These straps have been well proven in temperatures as low as -40º and are both useful and versatile.

Changing tire pressure on a winter bike trip is like changing gears – you do it often depending on conditions. Carrying a decent pump that moves a reasonable volume of air is important. When adding air, I would count how many pumps and after a couple weeks out was in a fine tune with my PSI.

First Aid:

Similar to the tool kit, you can never carry enough First Aid to field all scenarios but you can cover many of the likely solutions in a compact package. For us, analgesics, Band-Aids, skin cream, talcum powder, sunscreen, burn cream, tampax (for big gashes) and an ace bandage are the bulk of our little red kit and thankfully we needed to use it sparingly.

Taking care of skin is a daily chore when the air is dry and windy and the sun reflects off the snow. We used SPF 30 several times a day and in the evening applied Bag Balm. Saddle rash was resolved by using diaper ointment. (Go ahead – laugh.) Talcum powder is useful to help dry feet that have been in vapor barrier socks all day.

‘Prevention is the best medicine’ in general but especially on a long, remote trips. Listening to your body, good nutrition, rest, hydration and early detection of potential problems are important to successful fat-bike expeditions.

Technology:

Almost every community in rural Alaska has central utilities. As a result, recharging batteries is reasonable. Our technology is fairly sparse but, for us, very important. We carried a DeLorme InReach tracking device, headlamps and cameras.

The InReach tracking device ‘pings’ our location at a set interval and delivers the data to a website with a map. People who want to follow your progress can visit the webpage and see your path and current location. The device allows you to text up to 40 messages a month and ultimately it can be used to send an SOS. Being able to text is a great feature. My thoughts about rescue are to never require one. However, accidents do happen. If you ever were in a dire situation and needed help, texting someone who could call the local SAR would be so much better than hitting the SOS button and having the Air National Guard called out. But if your life depends on it – do it.

We both carried DSLR cameras, one lens apiece, several spare batteries loads of memory and chargers. Photography is very important to me and the weight of a full frame camera is not a burden. If Bradford Washburn could lug around a Fairchild F6, I can carry a Canon 5D. There is a chance that I will never cover that terrain again and I would hate to miss an opportunity to capture a great image.

We both carry our cameras in dry bags, on our bodies. The cameras typically perform well in the cold but it is important when bringing the camera inside to keep it in the dry bag while it warms. Taking it out prematurely will result fogging the glass and sensor. The same is true when going back out. I often leave the camera outside if I am only going in for a while.

Summary:

Every trip reveals insights, thoughts and ideas to incorporate into the next adventure and even though we felt adequately prepared for this trip there is always room for improvement. Listening to others and sharing advice is a way to save yourself making unnecessary mistakes but experimentation requires a willingness to fail.

There is an art to wilderness travel and each discipline comes with its own palette. Winter fat-biking is still a young pursuit, not full of bibles and stuffy codes. Adventure by bike is a noble and elegant way to experience the world. I hope this gear review is helpful.