“Travelling by bicycle is a life of simple things taken seriously: hunger, thirst, friendship, the weather, the stutter of the world beneath you.” — Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders
Alaska! The very name sets one’s adventure glands tingling. Of all the wild places in the world, this one had the strongest hold on my imagination. During a year-long hiatus working in South Korea, it had come to represent a light at the end of the tunnel, a hyperborean promised land. To keep me focussed on continuing my trip, I had envisioned standing at the northernmost roadhead of North America, close to the Arctic Ocean, with 30,000km ahead of me to the farthest tip of South America.
From a window seat I surveyed the rough terrain of Kodiak Island spread out beneath my flight into Anchorage, a crumpled egg-box of hills and lakes. Exactly the trackless wilderness of my imagination. The Aleut word ‘Alaska’ translates as ‘the great land’. Everything is bigger here. In a display case in the airport, a 12-foot tall, three-quarter ton Kodiak bear – the world’s biggest land predator – leers at new arrivals. Nearby, a timber wolf the size of a small horse is preserved in mid snarl. Alaska has North America’s highest peak, and is by far the most vast state in the USA, at one fifth the area of the Lower 48 states combined.
I would be in town for less than 48 hours. Just long enough to provision my ride down the Dalton Highway from Deadhorse, on the Arctic Ocean at 70 degrees north, where I would fly the morning after next. I was fortunate to have been connected to friends of friends in town. Washington State born, fish and coral expert, Cody was a true legend. Straight from a night fishing trip, he scooped me up from my red-eye arrival in his truck, and took me to a diner for my first all-American breakfast. A sclerotic mix of sweet and savoury: eggs, mushrooms, toast, pancakes, syrup and cream, and gallons of weak coffee. In my jet-lagged stupor, my brain fumbled to answer the smiley waitress’s barrage of questions about how I wanted each item.
My main mission in Anchorage was to arrange food for the whole ride from Deadhorse to Fairbanks – the first and most remote leg of my route in North America. Deadhorse has only a couple of hotel restaurants and basic snack foods at the general store; there are no stores on the 800km route. At around ten days riding, that’s too much food to carry along with all my other gear, without sacrificing calories and variety. So I parcelled up half of my supplies and sent them poste restante to Coldfoot, a hamlet halfway between Deadhorse and Fairbanks.
Food and essential kit taken care of, I hit the fast wi-fi in a café next door to REI to download maps and the Milepost route guide. I treated my tent porch and clothes with permethrin insect repellent. Finally, I repacked everything, stuffing bulky items around my bike frame to make room for all the food I needed to carry. Alaska Airlines has a fantastic bicycle policy, waiving oversize and overweight charges for a boxed bicycle, treating it as one of your two check-in bags. No one queried all the other stuff I crammed in there. I was as well prepared as I would ever be. Wonderful human that he is, Cody gave me his own bed to catch up on zeds, and returned me to the airport for my early morning flight.
The little Boeing 737-700 was full to capacity with oil workers and residents bound for the isolated town of Barrow, the flight’s last stop. On the ground in Deadhorse, low cloud denied any sneak preview of the region I was about to traverse. While I unpacked and reassembled my bike, friendly airport staff offered me bottles of water, then white gas and a can of bear spray (saving me $50 in the general store). One of the ground staff had cycled the Dalton Highway the previous year, inspired by all the cyclists passing through the airport. She gave me intel about the conditions ahead, and tips on how to adapt camping and cooking to stay out of trouble with bears and other wildlife.
The Dalton Highway, or North Slope Haul Road as it was originally known, was built in 1974 to service the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which connects USA’s biggest oilfield at Prudhoe Bay to a marine terminal at Valdez. The length of the Dalton was first opened to the public in 1994, giving overland access north of the Brooks Range continental watershed. Deadhorse itself is just a logistics hub and dormitory town for the Prudhoe Bay oilfield. Calling it a town is an overstatement. Hangar-sized depots and machine shops line a gridiron of muddy roads a couple of blocks deep. In every parking area there are overhead electrical hook-ups for winterized vehicles. Cars have tell-tale electrical leads hanging out of the front grill to connect engine block heaters and battery chargers. Winters here regularly see -50°C.
Before quitting town, I hit the self-serve buffet at the Prudhoe Bay hotel, to give myself a fighting advantage on the rough road ahead. Like all buildings in Deadhorse, no expense had been spent to make the hotel look like more than just an assemblage of container units and wooden siding. A workers’ dorm with shared shower will run you $120. Signs in the hallway prohibited alcohol under penalty of eviction and a hefty fine. The whole town is dry; cabin fever is real enough when the sun doesn’t rise for two months in winter. I loaded up on soup, sandwiches, coffee and cakes until I couldn’t hardly breathe, then made a pile of sarnies to take away that lasted the next two days. $15 well spent.
I made a last minute pitstop at the general store for the obligatory posed photo, and grabbed a compressed-air horn to deter frisky wildlife. It was after 2pm by the time I was rolling south. In early July with round-the-clock daylight I figured the late hour made no difference, but I was anxious to get cracking. The forecast threatened rain. An hour out of town the clouds coalesced into sleety rain, necessitating waterproofs and shoe covers. Even in the height of summer, getting wet is no joke in the Arctic. Soon my gloves were soaked and I felt the stinging burn of cold in my hands.
My chat with the airport worker had given me the idea to reach a former pipeline construction camp called ‘Happy Valley’ for the first night, 130km from Deadhorse. When the road surface wasn’t a sticky quagmire I could proceed at a decent clip, especially with all that energy from the mega-buffet. But the road was deteriorating fast. Now I was into a twenty kilometre stretch of roadworks, where the coarser sub-base was exposed to the rain, making it too soft to ride on. I weaved across the width of the road seeking the firmest parts, avoiding the deepest gravel, puddles and ruts.
Around 6pm I passed a road workers’ camp. A lone figure approached me on the otherwise desolate road, visible from half a mile away in hi-viz workwear. I asked about the conditions ahead, and whether it was okay if I rode instead on the smaller track that ran underneath the oil pipeline. The service track might not be such a smart move, he told me. A grizzly bear had been hanging around the track near the worker’s camp recently. It seemed content hunting ground squirrels, but all the same, probably best to stick to the main road, eh?
The worker wished me good luck and as an afterthought said that ‘my friends’ are just ahead. What? I’m travelling alone, I replied. ‘Well there are a couple of other cyclists hiding behind that bulldozer parked yonder’, he gestured. I assumed he was pulling my leg, and headed off into the drizzle, thinking to ride hard for a few more hours and get this Arctic Adventure properly started. But as I passed the bulldozer I saw that I had not been kidded, after all. There was an MSR tent and two bike-packing rigs propped against the caterpillar tracks.
I approached and called ‘hallo the house’. After a brief pause the reply came in an English accent. Once the inhabitants realised I was a fellow cyclist and not a crazy person or security sent to harass them, they unzipped and introduced themselves as Adam and Julie, Swiss nationals, respectively of English and Californian parentage. They had set off that morning from Deadhorse after arriving the previous day and staying in a hotel to get their bikes assembled. This was the first day of their ride to South America and the wind and rain had led them to make camp when they spotted this pull-out sheltered by the bulldozer. We chatted a few minutes and they invited me to stay.
But it seemed much too early in the day to stop – I’d barely got started and felt like a coiled spring, full of energy. And truth be told, camping in a muddy puddle at the roadside was probably the worst campsite I have ever seen. Especially since the neighbours reputedly included an actual wild grizzly bear. But on the other hand, it was a long, lonely road ahead, and I had wondered, hopefully, if I would meet other cyclists to team up with. When it comes to grizzlies, the more eyes and ears and voices in the party the better. Here I was, bumping into two friendly folks going my way, and still feeling like I ought to push on. I remembered my mantra to go with the flow and push against the open door. I scouted around for the least sloppy bit of ground to pitch my tent.
We chatted about the bear issue, confirming each other’s thoughts about how to set up a clean camp. We walked a few hundred metres away from the tents, and boiled up water for tea. Scanning the area with binoculars, Adam paused and passed the glasses to Julie. ‘What do you think about that lump’, he asked. ‘Is it a bush or a hummock?’. ‘Bushes and hummocks don’t move, do they?’ she answered. Taking my turn, it was obvious that the brown mass was moving, sometimes towards us, sometimes to the side. We agreed it was a bear, but since we were a few hundred metres away and downwind of it, there was no need to fret just yet. But it kept us on our toes, and ensured we took every precaution, removing all food and scented products from our tents and placing them in bags well away from camp.
Out on the tundra, there are no trees of any kind. I managed to get my food bag and pannier off the ground (away from ground-dwelling rodents) by hanging them on a road sign. In Anchorage I had bought an ‘Ursack’ bear-proof food bag, on the recommendation of other Alaska cyclists. Lighter and easier to pack than a hard-shell canister, it’s constructed of densely woven, tear-proof nylon. Although bears wield terrifying strength, their teeth and claws aren’t that sharp apparently, unlike say rodents or birds of prey (yes I know birds don’t have teeth, whatever). So bears can maul these sacks for hours and pulverise the contents, but they can’t get inside, assuming you’ve tied a double overhand knot correctly (see also: ‘why don’t polar bears eat Penguins? Because they can’t get the wrappers off’. Boom boom). It seemed wildly optimistic to me, but US and Canadian national parks require you to have a bear-proof food container, and the Ursack is approved by most.
As we packed up in the morning, an enthusiastic pipeline worker stopped to congratulate us on our bravery, saying that this place felt wild to him, even from the safety of his truck. With all this company, suddenly it didn’t seem so remote and challenging any more. My sense of wildness was restored by daily wildlife sightings. Musk oxen sashayed about the tundra like ginger yaks in grass skirts. An enormous cow moose trawled a roadside lake for pondweed. On a snowy hillside, we spotted two grizzly bear cubs. We drew closer – they were small, this year’s litter. We stood transfixed watching them slide down the snow-bank and tumble over each other in play. At the foot of the hill their mother watched too, her pale brown fur almost blonde. After half a minute she caught our scent and broke into a run uphill, the cubs trotting after her, over the brow of the hill and out of sight.
Grizzlies (brown bears by another name) are relatively scarce on open tundra; the home territory of a lone male can be 80 to 160 square kilometres. With two bear sightings in the first 24 hours, we decided to stop to cook our evening meal before cycling on for another hour or so afterwards. In Anchorage I had made a few changes to my usual shopping list, as I knew I would have to pack all waste with me for days. Cans of oily fish, or indeed any other strong flavours or smells seemed like a liability in bear country. Instead I went for packets of dried rice and mashed potatoes, oats and dried fruit for carbs. For protein, I bagged the contents of a 1.3kg tub of dried black bean burger mix, which after a bit of practice made a satisfying dinner. As John McPhee says in Coming into the Country, “I can think of places where all these foil-lined packets and plastic containers might be an affront to the woods, but in Alaska their advantage is great. They are a way to move through bear country without drawing bears. More accurately, I should say “without in all likelihood drawing bears.” Unopened cans of sardines have been found in the scat of grizzlies.”
We arrived late at Happy Valley Camp on our second night out (showing what an unrealistic target it had been for my first day). There were signs of recent habitation but the place was deserted. We scouted around for a good spot. I had my eye on an grassy area down by the river, open to the breeze to keep down mosquitoes. Adam and Julie preferred cover from the wind among the buildings, and suggested the riverside would be more vulnerable to bears. Camping preferences are idiosyncratic, and I am used to pleasing myself, so it was an interesting experiment to see how I would work in a partnership. But I had every reason to go with the flow. Adam and Julie were wonderful cycling companions – we had many common interests and shared cultural references. Conversation flowed easily – nutrition, bears, bugs, books, life – and we laughed a lot. I couldn’t have wished for better company out there in the middle of nowhere. We made camp between a few outbuildings. The wind rattled some loose bit of roof or siding most of the night, but we survived without bear attack.
I realised that my usual M.O. of riding all the daylight hours wouldn’t work in the Alaskan summer. Aside from the 24 hour daylight (when would I stop?), my new friends were right at the start of their tour, easing into things and finding their rhythm. I tried not to impose my own habits. And truth be told, there was no need to hurry. We had enough food to get to our resupply point in Coldfoot without killing ourselves. And this was the chance of a lifetime to enjoy riding in Alaska. Actually, having enough food was a close run thing. I had budgeted my usual amount plus a bit extra to allow for delays. Adam and Julie had made a more haphazard guess as to their caloric requirements, and had cut it fine. Between us we wouldn’t starve, but every pitta bread was counted and rationed.
We had been tipped off about a road-closure ahead, where construction work shut the road to all traffic every three days. We decided to push through the Atigun Pass, the highest point on the Dalton Highway, to allow us to clear the construction area before it closed, and avoid having to wait around for a day. Easier said than done. After three days of flat tundra, the Atigun Pass was the first real landmark on the Dalton Highway. Its gradient is never steep, but it was here that we encountered the sticky ‘mud’ for which the Dalton is infamous.
The dirt road is treated with calcium chloride, a deliquescent and binding agent that limits dust erosion by heavy trucks, and lowers the freezing point in winter. When dry it works to compact the dirt into a hard pan. That’s when it’s dry. When it’s wet it turns the mix into a glutinous cement. A gap in the clouds had followed us all afternoon, shining a patch of light on us like divine inspiration. As delightful as that sounds, heavy downpours had gone before us. Now the Atigun was dressed with a couple of inches of heavy sludge.
Really we were lucky – the glop wasn’t quite sticky enough to clog our drivetrains and brakes, as I had read in other people’s accounts. But it increased the drag on the tyres many fold. By the final turn on the pass I was in my lowest gear and straining to keep the bike moving forward, despite a gradient no more than 1 in 10. It felt like someone had turned the gravity up to 200%.
It had been a huge day: 97km of sucky road with a 700m climb in the tail. We whooped down the south side of the pass and found peaceful camping near the airstrip on the banks of the nascent Chandalar River. It was around 11pm when we finally got the stove on for dinner. The sun briefly dipped below the mountain horizon for a couple of hours, but the sky stayed mid-blue, broad daylight the whole 24 hours. A new environment began south of Atigun Pass. The featureless tundra of North Slope was replaced by river valleys and hillsides splayed out like giant’s knuckles. Within a few kilometres we passed the northernmost spruce tree, so scrawny you missed it if you blinked.
At the construction area next day we were told there was no chance of riding a bike through, even on days when the road was open. My protest that we wanted to ‘ride the whole way’ was met with a gruff shrug. ‘You can wait here until the shift finishes in eight hours, or you can put your bikes in the truck now. Which is it to be?’. Sitting on our heels slapping mosquitoes for a day wasn’t why we were here, so we accepted the lift. For sixteen kilometres we craned our necks for views of the Brooks Range mountains, as our truck weaved between heavy earth-moving equipment, stopping often for radio clearance to continue. The driver regaled us with stories of other cyclists who had passed through in recent years, including an Englishman who had been terrorised by a grizzly bear in his camp. Allegedly he’d fled, leaving most of his equipment and was on the verge of abandoning his tour when picked up by the construction relay drivers. I took the story with a pinch of salt, feeling sure the locals were just messing with us. But Adam recognised the yarn and later it was confirmed by others who knew the cyclist in question. Whether folklore or truth, the story kept us alert when a few bear free days might have led to complacency.
Past the roadworks we had a clear run to Coldfoot, the only resupply point of note on the Dalton Highway. It has a pub and restaurant, gas station, lodgings for those who can afford it, and free camping for those who can’t. Crucially for us, it also has a post office, where the food parcels we had sent from Anchorage, hopefully awaited. Although officially closed on Fridays, the staff opened up for us to grab our boxes. Camping in a wildflower meadow beside a small lake, Coldfoot in mid-summer was a lovely spot for a rest day. We lounged about, washed clothes with river water and ate every couple of hours. I couldn’t conscience $15 for a shower, so I filled my Ortlieb kitchen sink from the river and carried it into the bushes for DIY shower and shave. We hit the all you can eat buffet hard, for dinner and again for breakfast, laying in calories for the hilly days ahead.
A day’s ride south of Coldfoot we crossed the Arctic Circle. Another arbitrary trip milestone reached! We spent two long days gravel-grinding up interminable grades with names like Beaver Slide and Oh Shit Corner, punctuated by brew stops and random interactions with motorists, who pressed bottles of water and chocolate bars on us. We had got better at choosing campsites by consensus, riding as far as we could be bothered then taking the first likely-looking pipeline access road. We eschewed the pre-made campsites, which always seemed to be in wooded areas near standing water, swarming with millions of enormous mosquitoes. On balance, the mossies were nothing like as bad as I had feared, so long as we found a well-drained site with a breeze. Perhaps the permethrin treatment to my tent and clothes had worked.
In the woods one evening, a pipeline security vehicle trundled right through our camp (to be fair, we were practically camping on the service track). The uniformed ‘Officer Leroy’ seemed out of place in backwoods Alaska, as if he’d been teleported against his will from the streets of Chicago. His wide eyes darted about nervously, and he twitched and popped, swatting at invisible mosquitoes. ‘Ain’t they driving you crazy? They driving me crazy!’, he repined. He’d only stopped because he couldn’t believe his eyes, he told us. ‘Thought I saw some bicycles! And they are bicycles! Unbelievable!’, slapping his own neck all the while. He was glad to leave us to it, and get back in his cab to search out other mysteries.
South of Coldfoot the road surface steadily improves, but has a gradient profile like a rip-saw, with almost 10,000m of climbing in the four days to Fairbanks. Part of the reason we had taken a rest day was that Julie was experiencing knee pain – most likely from adjusting to a new routine of pedalling every day. The rest helped, but the relentless hills soon inflamed it again. Despite adjustments to bike and shoes, the pain was becoming unbearable for her. During a day of endless rain, wind and muddy-cement road, we huddled in the café at Yukon Crossing, nursing free coffee refills and pondering our next move. Gamely, Julie necked ibuprofen and consented to press on, but within a few kilometres the next hill brought her to a painful stop. Determined as she was to ride the whole way, it looked increasingly like she would need at least a few days off the bike to recover. We cowered from the pouring rain under thin, drippy spruce branches, trying to look on the bright side and find a reason to laugh. We kidded Julie that some folks would take this opportunity to make an emotional ‘poor me’ / ‘hero’ video to share on their YouTube channel, blubbing about how hard everything is. ‘Don’t see me like this… Sniff!’ [pushes the camera away, even though it’s on a selfie-stick].
We resolved to sleep on it and see how things looked in the morning. Adam and I built a fire and rigged a tarp between the bikes against the drizzle. It’s a rare luxury for me to have a fire when wild camping. Usually the need for stealth, or just the extra effort involved in preparing a fireplace and gathering wood, means I don’t bother. But out in the wilds of Alaska, there was no need for stealth. And after a day of miserable weather, sticky roads and biomechanical mutiny, there is no substitute for the morale boost of a good burn.
In the morning we tried to flag down a lift to Fairbanks for Julie. A few pick-up trucks stopped to see what the problem was, but no ride was forthcoming. A pipeline company driver said he couldn’t take passengers and that everyone would be in the same situation, so there was no point even trying with the commercial drivers. This seemed like bogus advice; more like he was trying to salve his conscience by claiming it to be a general truth. Never assume the worst. We ignored him and continued to try every vehicle we saw. But we also reasoned that we might as well pedal on so long as Julie was able to move, as waiting in one place was unproductive. Cresting a hill, we flagged down a couple of flat-bed trucks, which pulled off the highway into a turning area. The drivers worked for a small Fairbanks-based haulier, and after chatting for five minutes gladly agreed to take Julie and her bike. It goes to show: you make your own luck. Never accept anyone’s claim that something can’t be done. And keep moving if at all possible. Had we waited where we started the day, those big trucks would not have had room to stop.
Adam and I now had our work cut out for us, with over two hundred monstrously hilly kilometres between us and Fairbanks in a day and a half. We dug deep, eating on the move and riding late. We played tag with our energy levels, shoving down shotbloks to goad tired legs up the incessant climbs. If I’m honest, I got a big kick out of riding that last big day into Fairbanks. It was an athletic challenge, keeping up with Adam who was much more lightly loaded, and leading out on the less steep gradients. We met a fully-loaded northbound cyclist, pushing her bike up a hill, but in good spirits. Tatyana from Moscow was on a four week tour of Alaska. We swapped notes on the ground ahead, reassuring her that the scenery of the Brooks Range mountains was worth all the climbing. How was the southern part? we asked. With a hint of weariness came the reply, “So many trees!”.
Cellphone service kicked in near Fairbanks and brought good news; Julie had located a Warmshowers host for us. We arrived on Marilyn’s doorstep at 9pm, where Julie had a meal and cold beer waiting for us. The first proper shower in almost two weeks is always a quasi-religious experience, never more so than in Fairbanks. We slept late and lingered over breakfast while Julie briefed us. Ever efficient, she had already been for a pro-bike fitting, and was booked in for physiotherapy on her knee. Even though our super-host Marilyn had vouchsafed a few rest days if we wanted them, Adam and Julie were a whirlwind of activity straight off the bat.
We met up with another British cyclist, Bikepacker Bill, for tea. Talk was all about Denali National Park, and the drill for accessing its wilderness areas. Basically you can’t ride off road, you have to foot-slog with all your gear. That was going to be tough with my panniers, I commented. ‘Well that’s the price you pay!’, Bill snapped back. Julie and Adam were interested in riding the Baja Divide route in Mexico later in their tour, so Bill was keen to tell us how that should be done too. ‘You’ve done no research, then’, he clucked. I hung back from the conversation to avoid giving offense. Apparently our combined ten years international touring experience didn’t count for much.
After a few days of resupply missions and rest in Fairbanks, Adam and Julie were ready to ride south. I was in a quandary. As much as I would have loved to continue with them, I was aware that riding together was inevitably changing the dynamic of their trip and influencing their choices. I couldn’t but wonder if my presence had contributed to Julie’s knee trouble, if only by my preference for longer distances than they might have otherwise chosen at the start of their ride. Sad as I was to break up the team, I felt that they should make their own way and I mine.
I also had other business to attend to that was not served by pushing on with my journey until I had figured it out. This is harder to define… Since leaving South Korea, I had been reflecting on the point of my trip, what I wanted to get out of it and what I wanted to create and share from it. In Fairbanks I was about to commit to another headlong sprint south – through the boreal forests down to the Rockies in Canada. Southward ho! On one level, just being there in Alaska and Canada was fantastically exciting. I had long looked forward to this part of my route. But it seemed futile to just keep pushing on, uncritically making the distance without pausing to understand the places I was travelling through. I knew I wanted to make changes to the way I travel, I just hadn’t figured out how. I took out my journal and started writing.
In Marilyn I was blessed with a phenomenally patient and generous host. Like so many people I met in Alaska, Marilyn had migrated from the Lower 48. Originally from Montana, she had raised a family in Fairbanks while working as a neo-natal nurse, later with the air ambulance service, before becoming an administrator for a cancer care centre. In a relatively small community like Fairbanks, many families owed a debt of gratitude to her work. In Marilyn I found a friend with whom I could discuss the ideas I was pondering. I thought about how I could seek out communities that embody ‘the good life’ – however that might be construed. From the start of my trip, I had said that I wanted to go out into the world to see if anyone had any better ideas for how to live a meaningful and satisfying life without messing up the world for other people.
Marilyn introduced me to her friend, Dave, who lived in a hand-built log cabin in the forest outside town. Originally from New England, Dave had moved to Alaska over thirty years ago to work as a prospecting geologist. He showed me round his home and grounds, more a condo than a cabin, in the tranquil niche that he had cleared in the forest. Over a supper of strawberry ice cream and stout, Dave recounted tales of up-close encounters with grizzlies during decades of working on gold-dredging operations in the back country; stories told with relish but always with modest understatement. With his steady, quiet manner and mechanical aptitude and craftsmanship, he embodied the pioneering spirit of Alaska. Living proof of Richard Proenneke’s claim, in One Man’s Wilderness, that ‘This country makes a man younger than his birthdays’.
I left Fairbanks replete with new laptop, microphone, tripod and hard drive. More equipment, more weight! But also, with a lightness that only comes from having made a connection to a place and its inhabitants. Moving south again, my planned side trip into Denali National Park was rendered moot. The cloud was down and forecast to stay for a week. A four day out-and-back trip with no real hope of seeing the Big One seemed futile. Instead I turned east onto the Denali Highway, 220 kilometres of unsurfaced road through remote country, some of Alaska’s prime glacial geomorphology.
In the event, the Denali Highway didn’t feel that remote at all. It was Friday on the first weekend of open hunting season. Families had come up from Anchorage by the hundreds, and were setting up camps in lay-bys and pull-outs along the length of the Denali Highway. Most were so devoted to their task that few seemed to even notice my presence. The highway passes through native title land, and signs everywhere forbade entry without permission. As I was checking out a possible camp spot, a family in a pick-up truck came by. They seemed confused about where they could set up camp and asked me if I’d seen anywhere suitable. Unusually friendly for the guns and ammo brigade, the father told me they’d come up from Florida and were in possession of a moose tag. While the majority of hunters were restricted to caribou (wild reindeer), a limited number of moose permits are awarded by lottery each season. This bunch had a winning ticket, but they looked to have a long learning curve ahead of them. Good for the moose, I thought.
By Sunday I was sharing the road with a steady stream of quad-bikes and pick-up trucks topped with caribou carcasses. Approaching Crazy Notch I heard gun shots and watched several hunting parties move on foot across a nearby hillside. A truck drew alongside me as I cycled. The driver leaned over to ask, with a hint of panic in his voice: ‘have you seen any caribou? Someone told me there was a herd around here’. I wouldn’t have told him if I had. You have to wonder at the wit of the fellow, asking passing cyclists for hunting tips. I don’t get the attraction to killing things, but I recognise that hunting is part of a program to manage the herd. Although the majority of hunters were not outwardly friendly, whenever I did approach them they were accommodating enough.
I made a bid to get over MacLaren Summit before nightfall. I collected water from a stream and found a flat patch of ground away from the road in darkness. In Alaska I never felt the need to camp by stealth, but old habits die hard and I still preferred to be out of sight. I was dog tired, but buzzing with the exhilaration that comes from pushing hard to get over a mountain late in the day, with no clue whether or where I will find water and a place to lay my head.
Next morning Alaska’s famously wet August began in earnest. At Tangle Lakes the sky opened like a faucet. I threw on waterproofs and laboured up the twin passes that stood between me and the Richardson Highway. In the humidity of a full-on summer rainstorm, I was soaked from condensation within minutes. I sheltered under the eaves of a wayside toilet block. Although by no means a cold day at around 10°C, I was losing body heat fast, and my manual dexterity was getting sluggish.
In bad weather, comfort and survival depend on making good decisions at the right time. This is a lesson I have learned the hard way (is there any other way?). The summer before my trip I was caught out in a storm during a mountaineering trip on the Cuillin Ridge in Scotland. My climbing partner and I had been on the move for two days when we were forced to make an emergency bivvy and wait out the rainstorm overnight. Our bivvy bags failed to keep us dry and by morning I was mentally and physically uncoordinated – the signs of mild hypothermia. That trip ended with a ride in a helicopter. We made a post-mortem of the sequence of decisions that led to that outcome. Of course, it could have been much worse — the all-night rockfalls of television-sized blocks still give me occasional nightmares. The essential lesson was to take hypothermia seriously. It’s not only extreme cold that poses a risk – at very low temperatures it will at least be dry. Equally dangerous is the -5° to +10°C range, where ‘wet’ quickly becomes ‘cold’, as wind, evaporation and radiation rapidly leach precious body heat.
So first things first: stop and eat something. I scarfed handfuls of trail mix and chocolate, while fat drops of water trickled off the roof and down my neck. Good decisions are easier when the brain has some glucose to work with, and keeping warm takes energy. Second, keep base layers dry. I stripped off my sodden shirt and put on a dry merino t-shirt and overshirt, then put my damp raincoat on again. Third, cut wind with a waterproof shell. My lower half was still relatively dry under my rainpants, but the shoe covers had failed. My gloves were soaked too, so I fished out my winter mitts, the ‘big guns’ normally reserved for sub-zero conditions. With a long descent ahead, I needed to do something to stop my hands freezing. Fourth, keep moving to generate heat. I cinched my hood tight, topped it off with the helmet, and launched downhill. The rain only intensified as I lost altitude, ricocheting off the road deck, forcing me to squint to keep water out of my eyes (glasses were useless by this point). I breathed relief as I levelled out on the valley road and could pedal again to warm up.
Around 5pm I pulled into Meier’s Lake Roadhouse, thinking to get a meal and warm up, check the weather forecast, then push on. The waitress was straight on the case, administering hot coffee and ushering me into a chair beside the fire. When she brought my food, she said there’s a cabin available if I wanted it, free for cyclists. Nothing fancy, but I would stay dry; and I was welcome to use the laundry room. Staying meant the loss of several hours riding, so (being me) I was momentarily conflicted. She looked at me with a fixed expression, as if I was insane, and my resistance evaporated in a fug of steaming clothes.
On-off downpours continued into the next afternoon. As I was looking for shelter for lunch, a car pulled in ahead, the drivers waving a bar of Lindt chocolate at me. Colin and Kai were musicians from Fairbanks, who had been at school there fifteen years ago when British cyclist Al Humphreys had given a presentation about his round the world bike trip. ‘It blew my mind’ said Colin. Their friendliness as much as the chococalte bar lifted my spirits. Human interactions were few and far between on the long, lonely Alaskan roads, the occasional roadwork flaggers aside.
Rather than the direct route into Canada on the Alaska-Canada Highway, I was heading to the more out of the way but quieter Top of the World Highway. I feinted north on Tok Cutoff, an unprepossessing name for one of the most scenic sections of road I found in Alaska. Under brightening skies I barrelled along on a heaven-sent tailwind, standing on the pedals to maintain momentum on the climbs. The road cut through thousands of square miles of muskeg: impassable, swampy wilderness, patchy stands of spruce and cottonwood amongst beaver dams and meltwater lakes. Beautiful with the sun glinting off it when viewed from a speeding bicycle. But mosquito infested and impossible to camp in.
Tok village was my only resupply point on the ten day ride between Fairbanks and Dalton City, Canada. I loaded up the bike again and made for the Canadian border. I dropped into the cafe in the bizarre township of Chicken, an old-time gold mining settlement. Lo and behold, who should I find lurking at the back but old Billy Goat Gruff himself, bikepacking Bill, who had been so prickly in Fairbanks. I approached him breezily with a smile; we were both on the road, in the same boat now so to speak, so I thought we might make a fresh start. Half joking, I asked if he was aiming for the border that day, still an ambitious distance and climb away, although I hadn’t ruled it out entirely myself. ‘No chance’, he huffed. He planned to camp nearby in some dismal sounding dell called Mosquito Fork. I wished him well and went outside to make a sandwich. As I was eating, he came out to tell me I ‘had to’ visit the two souvenir shops in the village. Souvenir shops aren’t really my thing, so I thanked him for the suggestion, but said I’d rather sightsee from the bike. I don’t feel the need to go into every shop I pass, unless I’m interested in buying something. ‘The faster you go, the more you miss’, he pontificated.
Along Wade Creek I watched families sift pans of river gravel for the elusive sparkle. I took a gamble on finding water high up, keeping my load lighter for the last big climb of the day. You’d think I’d have learned by now to take it when I find it. I passed up a roadside waterfall, hoping to fill up at a settlement marked on the map a few kilometres shy of the border. But Boundary village was a ghost town, abandoned, and without water source. Running out of daylight, energy and options, I considered filtering water from a deep puddle in a viewpoint on the other side of the road, when I spotted a huge RV rig in the corner of the lay-by. The friendly hunters gladly topped up all my bottles. I was all set for one last Alaskan wild-camp in the woods.
I was late onto the road next day, emerging from the bush aound 11am. I spotted a cyclist at the side of the road, who I instantly recognised as Bill. I caught up with him and asked how early he gets up, to have covered the huge climb from Chicken that morning, when it had taken me a full afternoon and evening of effort. ‘Funny thing’, he said. ‘Just as I was getting started in the morning, a guy from the souvenir shop came past in a truck, so I stuck out my thumb!’. I commented on the beauty of the ride and the fun of seeing the gold prospectors on the way. ‘What? oh yes, right’, he mumbled.
The faster you go the more you miss? … Maybe. To each their own, I say.
Videos from this part of my trip: