Bike-sploring the Brooks Range Part 2

Editor's note: The second of three parts in sponsored rider Brett Davis's journey through the Brooks Range in Alaska continues. Read the first part here and the third part here.

Part 2:  Riding a Ribbon of Cobbles

We awoke to another day of clear skies. After having spent the previous summer battling relentless rain and winds in Iceland, I went into this trip mentally prepared for much of the same. Lying above the Arctic Circle, the Brooks Range is known for its highly variable weather that changes drastically at a moment’s notice. To awaken to a third bluebird day in a row was an unexpected bonus. My weather karma was starting to look up.    

The Blackborow ready to load for another bluebird day of exploration ...

Our original plan for dropping into the Accomplishment Creek drainage was to make our way to its head in order to climb its namesake, the highest peak in the region. Upon investigating our surroundings and having learned from the previous day what is possible to ride or not, we made the decision to forgo this goal. The creek was running steadily with water, so there was little chance of riding its rocky bottom. Additionally, we were once again in a land of thick tussocks. Given that Accomplishment Peak was 16 long, unrideable miles to the southeast, the attainment of its lofty summit was out of the question. We had come here first and foremost to explore the area by bike versus feet. Additionally, our time and food supplies would be in short supply if we continued on our original quest via foot. With this realization, we grabbed our maps and commenced a planning session to search for other alternatives.

Where to go next ...

Peering over the maps, we identified a low pass that would allow us to access one of the range’s major drainages. The Ribdon Valley is a massive fetch that fellow Salsa rider, Josh Spice, told us would possibly be rideable. Additionally, the Rib (5,856 feet) stood proudly as its sentry at the head of the valley. This would be our new mountain objective.

Crossing No. 1 of the day: Accomplishment Creek—photo courtesy of Steve “Doom” Fassbinder ...

Turning our back on Accomplishment Peak, we crossed the creek and started heading west, back towards the Sagavanirktok River that we had left the previous day. Once again keeping to a southern aspect, we were able to ride the majority of the 3 or 4 miles to the base of our chosen pass. From there the pushing began once again, as we switchbacked up a grassy slope. Being not near as long or as steep as the previous day’s pass, we made quick work of the slope and were soon basking in the sun among an impressive caribou antler shed. The bugs were minimal due to a slight breeze, so we lingered for a while and each drifted off for a power nap: After all, we had beautiful weather, and running out of daylight was not an issue.

An impressive caribou antler shed—photo courtesy of Steve “Doom” Fassbinder ...

It was an 8-mile descent to the Ribdon. The going was slow at times as we bounced from one rideable section to another. As with anything in life, though, progress is made by forward movement. With the vast Ribdon River Valley prominently in our sights, we lifted, pushed and pedaled ever onward hoping to reach a promise land of consistent riding. Three and half hours after leaving ”Caribou Pass,” our tires touched sand and gravel—perfect riding conditions for our fat machines. Wahoo!

The boys finding their own lines for the descent off of “Caribou Pass” to the Ribdon River Valley ...

In the Brooks Range, a serious accident could turn deadly due to the lack of rescue opportunities from the outside world. Additionally, the aforementioned unpredictable weather and the heinous hordes of mosquitoes, which are the most prevalent predator in the range, can drive an individual to the breaking point with annoyance. But perhaps our biggest concern going into the trip was the potential for bear encounters. The Brooks Range is home to the grizzly, and nearly every range veteran we spoke to about our trip had a tale to share. We were continually asked about what type of gun we were going to arm ourselves with for the inevitable encounters. While traveling with firearms from Colorado to Alaska is out of the question, and the fact that none of us were real savvy with these devices to begin with, we opted for simple bear spray. Each of us had our own spray canisters that were our constant companions while biking, sleeping and wandering around camp.

Our chosen protection ...

Of particular worry with the bear situation was what to do with our food during our resting hours. The range is void of all trees, so there were no opportunities for bear hangs. We opted not to carry bear-proof canisters or Kevlar bags that would add yet more weight and bulk to an already extensive equipment load. Upon the advice of a few Alaskan hard men who had spent a great deal of time exploring the range, we opted to sleep with our food and trust in our ability to defend it from any 400 to 800 lb. visitors, the thinking being that: 1.) With few human visitors, the bears of the Brooks Range have not been habituated to human presence and, thus, seeing three guys with bikes and packs would be startling to all but the most curious of bears; and 2.) It would be easier to defend our food if we were using it as our pillows than having it stashed someplace away from camp for the obvious reason that the loss of our sustenance would have dire consequences for our survival. Needless to say, we were all on high alert when we laid our heads down near our Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry meals. Jon improvised a sophisticated security alert system each night by placing our bikes balanced saddle and handlebar down around three sides of our shelter leaving our doorway free for a direct attack … or escape.

There was little doubt that we were the visitors in grizzly bear country ...

The Ribdon is a large river valley that spans several miles across in its lower reaches. Happy to be consistently riding, we relished in every pedal stroke. Because of its vastness, the river carved at its will, to and fro, from one side of the valley to the other. Consequently, we were constantly crossing braids—some rideable and others that forced us to wade. Additionally, we had to do some willow bashing between open areas. These areas were prime wildlife encounter habitat. Our pace generally picked up in these head-high thickets, with each of us ringing our bike bear bells and singing loudly (and very out of tune) along the way. Our big bikes made great bulldozers as we stormed unabashedly through thicket after thicket, quickly seeking open ground.

The Ribdon River Valley—a highway of cobbles and braids ...

Trailing in one such scenario, I came upon Doom and Jon stopped in a standstill, with Jon reaching for his bear spray. There, standing 40 feet away, was a massive hulk of brown standing on two legs above the willow tops, taking in what was coming his way. In the blink of an eye, he dropped down to all fours and was off: Our first bear encounter. Needless to say, we made camp that evening (and every ensuing one) in the middle of a broad open expanse of the river valley, with clean lines of sight in all directions. No camping in the willows for us; we wanted no surprises. 

Stunning open campsites with views in all directions were a must ...

After that encounter and the reminder that we were truly sleeping with our food in bear country with no immediate help should things go awry, I am not sure how well any of us slept. Nonetheless, we emerged from our sleeping bags to another dry day, although the clouds were hanging low. It was beautiful. Where were these mornings in Iceland?

The low clouds made for another beautiful start to the day—photo courtesy of Steve “Doom” Fassbinder ...

The consistent riding continued as we lowered the pressure in our tires to take on the riverbottom cobbles. As we rode towards the Rib, the valley began to close in, and the braids and water crossings became fewer. In fact, for a 5-mile section towards the end of the day, the riverbed became dry and our cobbles grew to small jagged boulders. The game then became how to balance and pick lines among the gigantic swaths of talus as we made our way to the river’s edge, where rideable tundra could be found. Our second day in the Ribdon ended with a lone sighting of our first caribou just shy of the river’s headwaters. We were able to ride the entire day under sunny skies once again. The Brooks Range was treating us well.

It is amazing what these machines can ride over under the tutelage of a skilled rider ...

I might sound like a broken record, but we awoke at 9 a.m. to yet another gorgeous day. Personally, it was inspiring to be dry in such a notoriously wet place. Having learned my lesson from last summer, I didn’t take anything for granted and felt so lucky to be where I was in one of the most remote regions of our continent, with great partners, experiencing such stunning weather. At that moment, I could have been presented with any hardship and would have been so positive and grateful for what I had already experienced. The trip was a success to me no matter what the coming days would present. 

BD smelling the Arctic Beauties—photo courtesy of Steve “Doom” Fassbinder ...

The last mile to the pass and the base of the Rib was energizing. Unlike our previous two passes, this one was all rideable. The Arctic Beauties were in full bloom, so Doom and I lingered for a photo shoot, asking each other to make multiple laps through a vibrant field of these flowers in hopes of getting the perfect shot. By noon we were off of our bikes and climbing up a third-class ridge towards the mountain objective we set out to scale three days earlier. Under clear skies we stood on its summit with the whole of the Brooks Range laid out below us in every direction. Could an adventure by bike get any better?

Picking our way to the summit of the Rib ...

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Click here to ready the conclusion to Brett Davis's Alaskan adventure.

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Blackborow Brett Davis Explore Fatbike

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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 (1)

ami | February 12th, 2016

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