Bike-sploring the Brooks Range Part 1

Editor's note: Sponsored rider Brett Davis takes us on a photographic tour of the Brooks Range in Alaska, in three parts, as he ventures from Fairbanks to Coldfoot and reflects upon the accomplishments therein. Read the second part here and the third part here.

Part 1: Seeking an Accomplishment

With my belly fuller than it had been in the past 10 days, I sank into the cheap vinyl couch that served as the bench seat of our borrowed Dodge Sprinter van. After a monstrous truck stop buffet in Coldfoot, we were driving down the legendary Dalton Highway back to where our adventure had begun in Fairbanks. With each bump in the road I was sent airborne, as this swath of gravel and broken pavement is relentless to all who attempt to travel it. As my body began to relax from the realization that it would not be called upon to exert itself like it had for the past two weeks, I began to find the rhythm of the road and, thus, became in sync with the bench seat bouncing to and fro. I imagined myself as a bull rider, perfectly in balance on the mass of violent strength below him. The only difference was that 8 seconds would be 4 to 5 more hours for me. Plenty of time to reflect upon what we had just accomplished …   

One of my partners, Jon, finding some quiet time on the “flying couch” ...

It all started with a passing comment as Doom and I rode past each other during my mountain bike commute home from the office. “Hey! What do you have planned for the summer? Let’s do a trip together,” turned into Wednesday evening planning sessions, email inquiries to those who could possibly help us, the creation of equipment and food lists, the building of bikes and homemade pfd’s, shake down rides and paddles, and eventually a flight to Fairbanks, Alaska. We were headed to the Brooks Range to ambitiously tackle a plan that involved completing a loop in this beautiful, yet very harsh, landscape via both packraft and fatbike. We had a two-week window (which included travel to and from Alaska) in which to complete the journey that had started as a couple of exchanged words on a dusty trail outside of Durango, Colo. My partners for this adventure were two local Durango hard men—Steve “Doom” Fassbinder and Jon Bailey are both incredible bike riders, well-versed in tackling unusual and “out of the box” escapades such as what we were now attempting. This was going to be fun!

Brooks Range or bust ...

For those who have spent any time in Alaska, you know that our 49th state is home to many characters and eccentrics. Our experience was no different, and I could easily fill this blog post with stories from the odd, bizarre and comedic encounters Jon, Doom and I had during our first and final days in the last frontier. From a dog named Ringo Star to Godzilla costumes and “end of the world” deals involving the Russians, and, of course, the quick consumption of 20-year-old bottles of scotch, we were properly embraced and welcomed to this wild land. Nonetheless, these other escapades will have to be saved for another forum, as this is a tale of an adventure by both bike and pack raft.

Who knew that Godzilla made its home in the wilds of Alaska ...

With food and bear spray obtained, as well as transportation, we made our way north beyond the Arctic Circle. Our starting point for this journey was just over the divide of the Brooks Range on the north side of the Atigun Pass. This northern most range of North America extends nearly 700 miles from east to west and is one of the most remote and least-disturbed wildernesses of our continent. In its entirety, the range is bisected by only the Dalton Highway that follows the Alyeska Pipeline for more than 400 miles from just north of Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean at the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Because of its remoteness, it is rarely visited, and the grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, caribou and birdlife that call this region home are largely uninfluenced by human presence. One will not find trail maps with popular campsites or must-see highlights marked on them. Instead, it is “a choose your own adventure” in a truly wild land, where one slight mishap could have dire consequences. 

The heart of the Brooks Range ...

Our ambitious exploration began at a bridge above the “Atigun River 2.” After a day of flight travel, another of prep and nearly 10 hours of bumpy driving up the Dalton Highway, we were at our starting point. The put-in was a concrete boat ramp leading to a stream of water that would quickly put us deep into one of our planet’s seldom-explored lands. After stowing 11 days of food and equipment into our packrafts, securing our bikes to their bows and donning drysuits, we pushed off. It was 7 PM. Once leaving the boat ramp, we would be on our own with little chance of outside assistance. Our safety and success would be determined by the wherewithal and experience of our team of three. A phone call out or the push of an easy button was not an option.

Loaded and ready—let the adventure begin ...

The Atigun Gorge has been paddled by many an adventurous soul. Whether or not it has ever been navigated utilizing packrafts loaded with fatbikes and food for 11 days is unknown. We navigated the continuous class II & III boogie water with focus and wonder. A miscue on a line could lead to consequences that would jeopardize the success of the trip. On the other hand, it felt amazing to put into action what we had been planning for the past couple of months. Reality for me is always better than my dreams. After our first significant wildlife sighting (a wolverine) and negotiating around a class IV drop, we paddled into the Sagavanirktok River and found our first camp. It was 12 AM, and the midnight sun was shining brightly. Jack Daniels emerged and a celebratory swig was passed as we reveled in the completion of phase one. We were in the Brooks Range!

 

Enjoying the boogie water of the Atigun Gorge—photo courtesy of Steve “Doom” Fassbinder ...

Waking at 9 AM, we assembled our fat two-wheeled machines, and stowed away our packrafts for future use. The Blackborow would now be my mode of transportation for the next five to six days. Outfitted with a handlebar gear sling (packraft and break-down paddle); a frame bag (food and bike repair essentials); and an Salsa Alternator rack (more food), my trusty steed was ready for what lay ahead. After a brief photo session of easy riding on the sandy beach adjacent to our camp, we were ready to see what the day had in store for us.  Could we actually ride these go-anywhere-machines in this environment? The Brooks Range is void of all trees, as the climate is too harsh to support such growth. Instead, it is a mountainous region containing rocky outcrops, tundra, moss and arctic tussocks—the potential bane of our ability to ride. 

Shoreline riding—if it could only be so easy ...

Immediately after leaving camp, we entered “tussock land.” These compact tufts of low vegetation are difficult to hike through, let alone attempt to navigate by bike. We had been warned about these ankle-breaking features—many a hiker had struggled to make their way across such terrain. In our planning we wondered how a bike would fair and hoped that this venture would not be a backpacking trip with bikes.

Tussock Land ...

The reality of navigating this terrain quickly set in with the easy riding of the shoreline now replaced with pushing our heavy bikes through an expansive marsh of tussocks. Add hungry mosquitoes and warm temps from the blue bird sky above, and you have the making of a very sweaty sufferfest. Our first couple of miles were spent pushing our loaded steeds while covered head to toe in rain gear and headnets. It is amazing how mosquitoes can seek out and find any exposed skin—even if it is only one square inch of uncovered flesh from my cycling gloves. The tussocks and mosquitoes did little to dampen our drive or moods: Long ago, while sitting carefree in a Durango brewery, we accepted that our intended adventure would include such challenges. Mentally we were prepared to suffer, but hoped that this trip would lead to more saddle sores than blisters on our feet.

With patient observance, we began finding the ride lines ...

As we pushed forward up the valley towards the pass that would drop us into our intended destination for the day, we began to gain insight into the terrain. With patient observance, we began to find rideable lines. The southern aspects were rocky and tussock-free versus the valley floor or the northern aspects, which were thick with vegetation and water. Our crank arms started to rotate, propelling us forward. Slowly we began to understand the subtle nuances of this new land. The initial 100-yard sections of riding linked into 200 yards and then 300 yards, and so on. Soon we were pushing less and riding more.

We contoured, climbing ever upward to the pass ...

After a much-needed break and lunch at 3 PM, we turned north and began to climb to a drainage that would drop us into Accomplishment Creek. We slowly contoured along the east side of a steep picturesque gorge for a couple of miles before dropping into its cobble-filled bottom. Wahoo! Having each spent plenty of time riding such terrain in the desert of southern Utah, we were all well acquainted with the complexities of riding over baseball- and bowling ball-size rocks. Our 5-inch tires were well suited for this type of terrain. 

Cobbles—all rideable with the Blackborow’s 5-inch tires ...

As we climbed towards the pass, the barren mountainous walls began to close in and suffocate our ability to ride. The final push was on. Soon we were each in our own private battle against the terrain as we manhandled our loaded machines up the unrelenting escarpment above. Enduring the never-ending attack of blood-seeking mosquitoes, we pushed, pulled, carried and willed our way to the top of the pass. At 8 PM, we breached the pass and gazed down the 4 miles into Accomplishment Creek. Our camp for the evening was just a few miles away. 

Sometimes it took two to manhandle our beasts of burden ...

The descent off of the pass was nearly all rideable as we bounced around and over tussocks and other low-growing arctic vegetation before finding more cobble riding. Having been on the move for more than 12 hours, we rolled into a beautiful campsite along the banks of Accomplishment Creek at 11:30 p.m. It was time for another late-night dinner, then a welcome crawl into our sleeping bags. What a day! Sleep found me easily as my mind reflected upon what we had accomplished that day … we actually were able to ride bikes in the Brooks Range. Wahoo!

Descending towards Accomplishment Creek was oh-so-sweet ...

A well-earned meal at 1 AM ...

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Click here to read Part 2.

This post filed under topics: Blackborow Brett Davis Explore Fatbike Sponsored Riders

Share this post:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brett Davis

I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.

COMMENTS (2)

Steve Fassbinder | October 10th, 2015

The resolution on these photos needs some help guys. Looks like some old flip phone images, when they most certainly are not. Cheers Doom

Kid Riemer | October 15th, 2015

Sorry about that Steve. Some settings were not correct and we have re-imported. Looks like you had a one heck of a trip. Nice work.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.