Feature: Fat biking through the Arctic

Originally posted on October 30, 2015 at 11:14 am

Words and photos by Bjørn Olson
From Issue #182

“Mend your equipment if you are to prevail”

Both hands gripped our handlebars tight, squeezing the brake levers, often dragging a foot to slow our steep and icy descent from Rainy Pass. Instead of snow, typical on the Iditarod Trail in early March, we were riding our bikes on frozen dirt, exposed roots interspersed with patches of ice and rock—an unexpected treat of fun and technical mountain biking. My girlfriend, Kim, and I would stop at intervals, look back up the trail, and wonder with bemused curiosity at how any dog driver could control a sled pulled by a team of 12 to 14 powerful Iditarod huskies through this torturous, icy maze of a trail.


Our five-week expedition to Arctic Alaska began five days before the start of the Iditarod sled-dog race, and now the persistent dog-drivers were catching up as we rode the last miles of frozen, glare river ice into Rohn—a remote checkpoint in the cold shadows north of the Alaska Range. Rather than block and impede the racers, we planned to pull aside and let the nearly 70 mushers pass.

Alaska8Film crews and assorted media, race marshals, veterinarians, and dog handlers hung around the solitary Bureau of Land Management cabin in Rohn, awaiting the first mushers as Kim and I rolled in. After pitching our shelter on the edge of the gravel airstrip, we joined the masses and lent our support to the dog handlers as they assisted the trail-weary and often broken racers into the dog yard. “It feels like we’re the Red Cross at the scene of a battle,” Kim said after a few hours helping the teams into the yard. The lack of snow had been devastating for many of the mushers. In the end, 140 dogs with their drivers (10 out of 70 entries) would scratch out of the race in Rohn and fly back to Anchorage—many of them seasoned experts. For us, the trail was hard-packed bliss.

Weeks before, Kim and I were a blur of pre-trip details. Both of us are veterans of long winter fat-bike expeditions, but our proposed “Fat Bike to the Arctic” trip was our most ambitious winter-cycling route to date. We projected to ride the first 750 miles of the Iditarod Trail, then veer north, cross the Seward Peninsula and Kotzebue Sound, and finish in Kotzebue for a roughly 1,100-mile route that had never been completed by bike.

Alaska12Failure, in my experience, is more common than success on long winter fat-bike trips in Alaska, mostly due to inclement weather. With an open schedule and a collapsible titanium wood-stove in our shelter, our ability to sit out storms and go when conditions allowed were the advantages we hoped would improve our chances. Years of mountaineering had taught me that patience is often the key to success. In the end we were lucky, with conditions near perfect the entire way.

“Send new 9-speed chain and SRAM X9 rear derailleur pulley to Unalakleet,” I punched into the texting feature of our two-way satellite-tracking device. We were off the Yukon River and on the Kaltag Portage, an overland trail that connects the interior Yukon River and the wind-beaten Bering Sea coast. Three weeks into the trip my new chain had broken countless times and had lost so many links that I had only two remaining gear-shifting options. The sudden and violent chain breaks had stressed my derailleur, causing one of the pulley bearings to blow. It’s the little things that’ll get you. I put the tracking/texting device away and began pushing my injured bike on the hard-packed trail towards the nearby shelter cabin.

Alaksa5Inside the shelter I searched for leftover parts and pieces from other travelers to attempt an improvised solution to my broken pulley: a washer, an axe, tinfoil, a ballpoint pen, and a metal file. After hours of filing on the washer, I was able to slip it into the bearing race and sleeve the bolt through, keeping it tight with foil and the ballpoint-pen sleeve. “I sure hope it works,” Kim said. “It looks secure and it spins, but it seems a little hokey.”

I scratched the verse onto the wall of the cabin before tentatively rolling the bike into the cold pre-dawn. “It just needs to make it to Unalakleet,” I said. “Another 100 miles and I can replace this deplorable chain and makeshift pulley.”

Frustration with my equipment melted with the first rays of sunlight. I had stared at this piece of the map for years, but topographic lines and photos never seem to vividly capture large spaces like the physical passage. When imagining the terrain from home, my mind ran wild, but I had not envisioned it truly enough. Tight forests full of winter life that led to open snowy passes sculpted with sastrugi and broad tundra valleys—the kind that are home to thousands of noble caribou—welcomed our senses as we rolled through.

There is an ancient presence within the portage. Ancestors of the people we’d been meeting had used this corridor for thousands of years. The pass had been a dividing line of cultures and an often-tense struggle over hunting grounds existed along with trade between the coastal and interior river peoples. One night on the portage I had a powerful dream: I was seeing myself sleeping on the naked tundra, and the sleeping me was thawing the frozen ground that had captured the dreams of previous travelers. I was seeping up the memories of people who had slept here before me. I woke with a profound sense of place.


“Are you expecting boxes?” a woman asked us outside the Alaska Commercial Company store in Unalakleet. “Yes,” I said. “Is it possible to get them now?” “Sure, I’m the postmaster,” she said. It was Sunday afternoon and this chance meeting with the postmaster was an unexpected surprise. Amongst the clutter of packages and heavy sacks of mail she found our food box and my new chain, but the pulley had not arrived. “Come by tomorrow around 10 a.m.,” she said.

The next morning came and went, but still no package. Feeling uneasy about long sea-ice crossings and traversing remote tundra with my makeshift pulley repair, we decided to wait for the afternoon mail plane. Later in the day, when it did not show up, we decided to risk it. “If it ever comes, please forward it to Koyuk,” I said to the postmaster. Koyuk was two villages away. I resupplied with tinfoil and a ballpoint for if, or when, I needed to replace the pulley sleeve.

Alaksa6At the end of the day Kim and I would both erect the floorless shelter together and securely anchor it, often cutting snow blocks to place around the perimeter in case of high winds. One of us would assemble the collapsible handsaw and begin harvesting enough firewood for the evening and morning. In the meantime the other person would crawl into the shelter and assemble the titanium wood-stove, light it, and begin melting snow for drinking water and dinner. For our entire five-week trip, wood was our only fuel. In the morning, the stove-chore person would wake early, light the stove, and start making water and breakfast. The daily alternation of chores meant that every other morning one person was allowed an extra 45 minutes of sleep while the stove warmed the shelter, dried gear, and made coffee and breakfast.

In Koyuk we stayed with our friend Robin. For the last two years she’d been teaching in the village, and it had been our plan to stay with her and see her new life in the community. News travels fast in rural Alaska. Soon everyone in the village knew that two crazy cyclists were staying with Ms. Child and that they were waiting for bike parts in the mail. The postmaster in Unalakleet misunderstood my request and sent the package to Shaktoolik, a village we’d already passed. To complicate the issue, a thick ice fog settled over the region and no mail planes were flying.

Alaksa 4Along our 1,100-mile route were two stretches of trail that wander into long, uninhabited swaths of wilderness. Leaving Koyuk and crossing the Seward Peninsula was the second and final one. As cyclists, we would be traveling into terra incognita. On the previous stretch we’d been lucky, but we now felt the jaws closing in on us as a storm nearly erased the trail within the vast taiga forest and the temperature dropped to negative 25 degrees. Our luck needed to hold one more time and I desired a soundly functioning bike before heading onward. We waited another day for the part, relaxed in Robin’s yurt, and ate our fill of rich, delicious native food. The next morning the part did not show, but the time had come to cut our umbilical cord from the village and head north.

Around 9 p.m. we gave up trying to reach Granite Hot Springs for the day. People from Koyuk keep the trail open by traveling north to the springs, and people from Buckland Village, on the north shore of the Seward Peninsula, travel south to the rejuvenating water. The hot spring had been an exciting goal for the day, but the snow-blown wind crust we’d encountered slowed our progress and we were tired from our efforts. We found a patch of willows in the otherwise treeless tundra, set up camp, and figured we’d take our bath sometime in the morning.

An hour after we broke camp we saw the telltale plume of steam in the still-negative-20 morning. Natural hot springs are amazing anytime, but after weeks of physical strain and being bundled in winter clothing, the experience was transcendent. Seeing ourselves naked for the first time in many weeks, we laughed at the ridiculous contrast of our pale trail-worked bodies and scorched red faces. More than any other winter bike expedition, this one had a faint quality of a vacation, but the nagging insecurity of the miles ahead always drove us onward, never feeling comfortable enough to stop long.

Alaska10“You follow the Buckland River out to the bay. There you will see a fork in the trail. Take the one that goes right, across the sea ice to the Baldwin Peninsula. It’s highly used and well marked. Follow the shore until you see a shelter cabin. There the trail will cros the peninsula and continue on to Kotzebue,” said the salty native elder in Buckland. They sounded and seemed like reasonable directions, but the next day, when we backtracked for the second time into a long valley heading due east, we were entirely baffled.

After spooking a herd of many hundred caribou, we spotted a cabin. “Could this be the shelter he told us about?” Kim asked. We went inside to look for evidence of our whereabouts. The morning had been cold enough that we were still wearing our down pants at 11 a.m. We lit a fire in the stove and read the writing on the walls for clues. “Selawik to Buckland, 2010.” “Noorvik to Buckland—visiting family, 2009.” The graffiti said nothing about Kotzebue. “I think we have been going the wrong way again,” Kim said. “Me too,” I offered. “But the other trail headed due west along the shore, was not well marked, and looked like it hadn’t seen a snow machine in weeks. This trail is great and well marked. What the hell?” We were cold, confused, and irritable.

Outside we heard the faint sound of an approaching snow machine, the first one in two days. We went outside to question the travelers. “Does this trail go to Kotz?” I asked. “No, it goes to Selawik Village,” the passenger said. The sage advice we’d received from the elder had been the way the trail used to go. Now there was a shortcut from Buckland to the sea ice and a more direct route across the bay. We needed to return to the fork and take the less-used, punchy trail we’d seen and follow it until it met up with the main trail. The two men soon became a speck on the horizon as their machine hurriedly sped away. Our frustration gave way to relief at finally being certain where we needed to go.

Alaksa 3Later that night, after a long, slow slog across the frozen bay, we reached the shelter cabin and spent the last night of our trip under a roof and between four walls. Life at home seemed long ago and our routine—wake up, break camp, ride; stop, set up camp, sleep—had become life. February had turned to March and March to April. Daylight was already more than 13 hours; it was still cold, the trail perfect, and the people we encountered were amazing. Reaching our destination after weeks of effort and years of planning would be rewarding beyond measure, but relinquishing the rhythm we were in was hard to conceive.

“It’s just how I’d imagined,” I said to Kim as we sat in the plane, waiting to fly home from Kotzebue. “I figured the farther north we got, the better the trip would get.” We both agreed. We’d be hard pressed to pinpoint any one “favorite” place, but our reverence and awe persistently increased the more we approached and eventually crossed into the Arctic. Our cup of adventure had been filled to the brim.

As the plane lifted into the air, we both craned our necks out the window. We could see our thin white path, a path that stretched all the way back to our car, five weeks and a lifetime ago.

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