Directly above me, Wenona attached another strap around a rear wheel and lowered the next bike down, through spiny devils club and other formidable brush. “This is the worst thing bikes are good at,” she said. I was next to catch the bike and pass it further down to the subsequent person in our fire brigade line beneath. Then I ducked, as another clod of dirt and rocks began sliding toward me.
A week and a half before, the mission had been to devise a wilderness cycling trip that would be reasonable for a mixed-experience group--and yet do something new and exciting. My small cabin exploded in turmoil of friends, gear, groceries, beer, and bottomless coffee. When the four trip comrades assembled, we poured over maps and came to a unanimous decision--Homer to Hope was to be our objective by an un-attempted variant of the iconic route.
The proposed route, in red ...
Our crew of five included two part-time Alaskans who spend winters conquering dreams of sail in the tropics. Margaret and Emory return to Alaska for seasonal Fish and Game jobs to finance their quixotic and piraty endeavors. Wenona, queen of crust and freight train/fixed gear touring, is a self-made welder who lives in Fairbanks, while Daniel and his wife moved to Alaska in their veggie-oil van. Daniel found the bush paradise they’d been seeking in Homer, replete with a timber frame home, big garden and a shop to weld bikes in.
No two of us alike, but all cut from the same defiant bolt ...
With packrafts, a week's worth of food, two shelters and warm clothing attached to our bikes, we stepped down from my back yard onto the beach, took a group photo and set off toward the northernmost community of the Kenai Peninsula--roughly 200 miles away.
“From all the photos I’ve seen, I thought this kind of riding would be easier,” someone said, as we waited for everyone to catch up. Day one was an eye opener for the novice beach riders of our crew. The first 20 miles of beach out of Homer are wickedly fun and technical--big to medium rocks intersperse alongside compact sand and occasional creek crossings.
With loaded bikes, this particular thrill of a technical 20 miles of beach was lost on some of the folks ...
After three brisk, clear days of riding the outer coast beach of Cook Inlet, we had no choice but to ride paved bike paths and ATV trails until we connected with our forested overland route. We were about to abandon the noisy herd of internal combustion motors and return to wilderness serenity when the bleeding started.
“Have you ever had a nose bleed last this long?” I asked. “Maybe not this long,” Emory said. “But sometimes they go on for a while.” Cold, dry air and persistent snot rocketing had set it off, and now there seemed to be no end to the crimson geyser. After an hour we began to worry. A woman jogger slowed to admire the five fatbikes, but stopped when she saw the obscene puddle of blood Emory had left on the gravel intersection.
“I’ll call my brother-in-law,” the woman said. “He’s a nurse at the school.” Moments later a man in a silver Toyota pickup parked on our trail. “Just pinch it,” he said. “I should have brought an ice pack. I always prescribe icepacks to the kids.” Ice packs and salt crackers were his silver bullets to life’s little problems. “Broke-up with your boyfriend? Here’s an ice-pack.” Our nurse was a fatbiker, and we took a shine to him in a hurry.
“You guys want to spend the night at my house tonight?” he offered. I was worried that we’d lose our hard-core if we slept indoors, but from the outset we’d discussed the role consensus decision-making would play in our choices. Hard-core be damned: I was outvoted four to one.
With a long stick, the nurse held up Emory’s saturated underpants that had been used to wipe the bloody nose. “You should take these into a bike shop,” he suggested, “and tell them you need a new saddle.”
I wore my puffy vest until after noon the next day. We’d received almost no convincing information about our forested overland route. “It’ll be mud up to your hubs, and there are miles of swamp,” they all said, but we pedaled on a frozen double track path through a heartbreakingly beautiful taiga forest of fall colors with carefree ease.
Not until late in the day did the ground begin the thaw ...
I can never begrudge the armchair naysayers when discussing possible routes, because I, too, am always shocked at what fatbikes are capable of. Long and deep puddles, with an inch or more surface ice was, for me, the terrain obstacle that presented the greatest joy. Don’t stop pedaling, no matter how much the crunching ice throws you side to side.
Keep your eyes on the far shore, and nine out of 10 times success can be had ...
An early goal had been to keep my feet dry the entire trip. As I rode straight into our first knee-deep creek, Daniel announced, “Bjørn’s give-a-damn is broken.” For much of the frosty morning everyone else took conservative water crossing routes. Eventually the water became too ubiquitous, and everyone else’s give-a-damns were forsaken by the wayside.
No wet feet on a wilderness fatbike trip, we determined, is like kindergarten without recess ...
Certain trips have a moment, a moment that is the moment of the entire experience, that years later when the trip is recalled all that is really remembered is one particular time. For me, that moment came when we reached camp after our first full day in the forest. The brisk air, glorious fall colors, the raging fire that we intended to make into a spectacle for the possible life on Mars, and above all, the company. It had been a perfect day.
Chickaloon Bay has many attributes to its credit. It is fantastic waterfowl habitat; it’s a refugia for juvenile fishes, sedges, which are a staple of black and brown bear grow in its uplands; and, at its shores, beluga whale feed on salmon. A biking or even walking surface, however, is not one of the bay’s special features. Thankfully we’d chosen a route that only skirted the eastern edge, but this gave us an ample taste of the bay’s knee-deep, sulfate- and methane-stinking mud, with head-high grass and slippery deadfall trees.
Progress in this kind of terrain is measured in yards per hour ...
Up to this point our packrafts had been used only to cross a couple slow-moving, but deep, rivers. Now, however, our packrafting would be serious. We’d need to paddle 6 miles from Chickaloon Bay to Gull Rock, to join with a trail that would lead us to Hope, in the most notorious ocean water in Alaska--Turnigan Arm. To complicate the matter, we were entering the bi-monthly big tides, which in the fall are massive beyond reason. More than 32 feet of water was expected to rise, and with that rush of water a river of swift current is to be expected.
When dealing with big tides, it’s paramount to time a launch scientifically: 5:30 PM was to be our window. With inflated and packed rafts, we sat on the cold, wet rocks and waited for the tidal current to slacken some. A chilly rain replaced our clear sky, and the dark clouds dimmed our temperaments.
Years before I watched helplessly from my sea kayak as a couple friends capsized in 100 mile per hour winds very near to where we were. Turnigan Arm can be an incredibly unforgiving place, and I wanted no repeat of that frightening, near-death experience.
Every few minutes I’d anxiously walk out to the point and look toward the middle of the arm. White caps began to appear, but for a time I thought we still stood a chance. Eventually, however, I saw “liquid smoke,” which occurs when the wind gusts 50 miles per hour or more. The strong wind sheared the tops of the waves and sent a vertical wall of droplets at fast moving right angles to the surface of the sea. Our window had closed. It was time to head to high ground.
After our fire brigade handed all gear and bikes up the several hundred feet of steep, forested terrain, Daniel suggested we see if we could find the old “trail.” For the next two hours, we pitched our bikes over deadfall spruce trees, wove in and through spikey devils club and alder brush. No sign of a trail existed, and we determined that if we could not paddle the following day, we’d retreat the way we’d come.
The next morning I stood under Wenona passing bikes and gear down the steep slope.
The frequency with which I find myself in these situations with a bike would lead someone to believe I like bushwhacking with a bike--I don’t ...
By 6:30 PM we were being whisked along in the ocean current. Margaret, who spends more than half of each year working on and sailing her steel, junk-rigged sail boat, was in the lead, and I paddled sweep. Like a fearless sea captain guiding her crew to safety, Margaret avoided the big, powerful eddies, and inside an hour we were safely ashore at Gull Rock. Another hour later the strong winds returned, and we thanked the auspicious stars that we’d been poised to take advantage of such a narrow weather and tidal window.
Through the night the wind increased to gale and then hurricane force. Over breakfast and coffee, Daniel yelled through the wind, “Look at the ground.” The forest floor was heaving as the swaying motion of the trees transferred down to their roots and made the ground buckle like a surreal dreamscape.
Being in line of sight with Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, gave us excellent cell phone service. Daniel arranged to have his wife meet us in Hope with their supersized cargo van. Within hours we, with all the bikes and a dog, were crammed into the steamy comfort of a reciprocating piston machine hurling down the highway toward a celebratory meal.
“Heyyy ... That trip was like September 11th,” Emory said, in a posture and accent of New York Irish. “I’ll never fuh-get about it.”
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