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Ring of Fire - The Expedition

Ring of Fire

The Expedition

But, you like adventure

By Bjorn Olson

There is a particular dream most people share: The dream where you are running from something frightening, but no matter how hard you try, the terror at your back gains ground. I awoke from this anxiety dream while napping in our two-person sleeping quilt with my girlfriend, Kim. We were three weeks into a fatbike and packraft expedition in Southeast Alaska that we expected to take the summer, but we had reached an unexpected dead end. Outside of our shelter, the rain came down in sheets, and the surf thundered against the rocky cliff walls.

This was our third late-July evening stuck on a remote beach along the Gulf of Alaska, unable to advance or retreat. I redirected my internal uneasiness with our only book and read aloud to her. The stories I read were from Ireland, and they transported us thousands of miles away from our soggy worries.

We listened to the VHF radio for a weather report the next morning. The National Weather Service had given us reason to hope the night before, but the conditions sounded as bad as ever — another low-pressure system had moved in accompanied by 25 mph winds, 9-foot seas, and the ubiquitous buckets of rain. We would not be traveling, and we decided to cut our daily food ration of soupy noodles and watered-down oatmeal, once again, even smaller.

Alaskan adventures are an intrinsic part of Kim’s life and mine. My fascination with adventure came at a young age. I grew up surrounded by family friends who were ice climbers, mountaineers, kayakers, skiers, dog mushers, and sailors. Each of these people left indelible marks on me, and by the age of 17, I began to test my wits and strength in the Alaskan backcountry.

Kim grew up in the rainy Pacific Northwest, tromping in the hills, harvesting mushrooms, and learning the ecology of coastal rainforests. She moved to Alaska for a summer environmental educator job, and, after meeting me, never left. Our romance was sealed over our love of wilderness and adventure. Eight years later, that passion is still burning. 

Wilderness adventure cycling was steadily replacing my previous pursuits when Kim and I met. In the late 1990s, I built up a mountain bike with the widest wheels and tires available, and began looking at the map of Alaska for possible lines. Mountaineering, ice climbing, backcountry snowboarding, and expedition sea kayaking were my interests, and a wilderness mountain bike fit perfectly into the mix.

At the time Kim and I met, commercial fatbikes had been available for a few years. Under my advice, she bought a frame and fork, and together we built her wheelset. We cobbled together the rest from my old parts. Since then, our lives have evolved in many ways, but expedition cycling has remained a steady fixture — an axis upon which the rest of our life revolves.

Kim and I approach our trips from the standpoint of sustainability. We prepare as best we can before beforehand, but while underway we seek immersion into the surroundings and try to find the best pace for the long haul. More so than sea kayaking or backpacking, long and remote cycling trips present a distinctive challenge — carrying enough food to be out for long periods between resupply.

As I turned off the handheld marine radio and hung it back onto the center pole of our shelter, our conversation turned to food — how much we still had, how many days could we squeeze out of what remained, and how badly we wanted more of it. Thoughts of bacon and eggs slathered in Reuben sandwiches and sushi, garnished with spaghetti and waffles, came to mind. When you can’t have anything, you want everything. 

We began our trip in Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, with the intention of making our way to our hometown of Homer to the north and west — a distance of almost one thousand, trail-free and roadless miles.

Typically Kim and I pour our energy into big winter trips, and, like most good Alaskans, work in the summer. For years we’d been scheming of a summer-long fatbike expedition. We mused for months about the aspects that would be so much easier: half-naked days riding in the sun, bathing in fresh-water streams, no risk of frostbite, no melting snow for water, etc.

Our hopeful vision of topless biking on sunny Alaskan beaches got its first dose of reality on our three-day ferry ride down the coast. We were reminded, as we walked the deck in our rain gear, that more people succumb to hypothermia in the summer months up here than in winter. A chilly rain and thick clouds prevailed during our sail. 

Throughout the past several years, fatbikes have grown in popularity in South Central Alaska, but in Juneau they are still an uncommon spectacle. All eyes were on us as we rode through four cruise ships' worth of tourist-infested downtown. We’d gotten used to not hearing the questions, “Hey, how fat are those tires?” and, “Where’s the motor?” but Juneau hadn’t.

Despite the rain and gloomy atmosphere, we rode over the bridge and away from the steep, lush, mountain capital city onto Douglas Island, in good spirits. After months of preparation and meditation, we were finally underway. What had taken the MV Kennicott ferry three days, we expected to take us the rest of the summer to repeat in reverse. We were on our way home. 

“Don’t you dare take a picture,” Kim said as she extracted herself from the waist-deep muck. Friends of ours had hiked across Admiralty Island years before and told us that the trail across the middle section would be the best way to go. We’d found the trail, but in no time it disappeared into a thick forest, then swamp. After recovering firm ground, she felt bad. “If I fall into another sink, I’ll let you take a picture,” she said.

I was reminded of the quote in the Samurai bible, the Hagukure, that goes something like, "If you are caught unprepared by a sudden rainstorm, you should not run foolishly down the road or hide under the eves of houses. You are going to get soaked either way. Accept that from the beginning, and go on your way. This way you will not be distressed by a little rain. Apply this lesson to everything." Kim was becoming a carbon fiber fatbike-wielding Samurai. Two days in, it began to look like this trip, more than any before, was going to require that particular conviction. 

Alaskan innovation and experimentation are what led to both the fatbike and packraft. In a state full of scarce trails and few roads, it’s no wonder that these two clever contraptions sprung forth. But, no matter how lightweight and fat-tired a bicycle is, if the terrain is too soft, overgrown, or otherwise impassable, it then becomes necessary to employ other strategies.

We finally gave up on the nonexistent trail over Admiralty Island. Paddling was to be our optimus bene for much of time between Juneau and Gustavus — punctuated with a few great riding beaches and some overland hike-a-biking. The outer coast beaches, along the Gulf of Alaska, are the terrain best suited for the bikes. Until then, we knew they’d be marginally useful and potentially cumbersome. 

Glacier Bay National Park, one of Alaska’s natural and protected treasures, has been on my bucket list for a long time, but as Kim and I rode, freshly resupplied, out of Gustavus, we considered how we wanted to handle the next stage of our journey. 

Crossing bays and fjords with strong tidal currents have to be timed precisely, especially in packrafts, which have a maximum hull speed of 2.5 miles per hour. We planned to cross the mouth of Glacier Bay with the last hour of the flood tide. This would gently push us into the fjord, slacken while we were in the middle, then turn us out to the mouth. But when the time finally came to make the 4-mile crossing, a thick fog band and strong wind rolled in.

After making the crossing the following day, we were surrounded by a pod of humpback whales, and again our forward momentum was stalled. The moment was too rich to rush past, as one whale after another surfaced in front, behind, and on our sides. We could sense these gentle beasts, their slow and graceful elegance working the tide to their favor for the sustenance they casually sifted between their hairy baleen filters. The air around us filled with the mist of their breath, and on it was the aroma of the sea — and ancient life. 

Days later we fought hard against a current to make the last mile into Taylor Bay. The sun was shining for a change, and we were excited to be out of the rafts and on good riding terrain. At the mouth of the bay was the tidewater Taylor Glacier. Our overland route, from the protected inner waters of Southeast to the outer Gulf Coast was along the glacier’s western moat. Beyond the moat was an overland bushwhack that we expected to be one of the many cruxes of our expedition.

The shoreline of Taylor Bay to the snout of the glacier was fantastic riding, peppered with a short river crossing through a thick fog bank to the western shore. Once across, we began working our way along the rocky moraine. We were able to weave our way through the big rocks on the bikes for a while, but eventually, the boulders became too large and too numerous. It was time for some serious hike-a-biking. We stripped all gear and bags off the bikes, stuffed everything into our oversize backpacks and began schlepping in earnest. All through the day our attention wavered between keen focus on our footing with brief pauses to marvel at the incredible, boulder-strewn, ice giant we were attempting to slink past. 

“This makes no sense,” I said. Kim and I were standing atop several hundred feet of a loose and sketchy boulder field within the moat of the glacier. In several places, refrigerator-size rocks hung precariously above us as we ascended, both to our right atop the glacier and to the left on the steep mountainside. We wanted to move past this section quickly, but once atop it became clear that our route ahead was not syncing up with the map. After careful study of the rapidly eroding and morphing glacial landscape, we determined that the first lake we should have passed had entirely drained and disappeared, and the second lake was what we had traversed, thinking it was the first. Glaciers make fools of cartographers and adventurers alike. We turned around and carefully descended the shooting gallery, and paddled to the beginning of the bushwhack.

We stopped to eat, and mentally brace ourselves for the brutality that we knew lay ahead. Better Off Dead is a bad '80s movie, starring John Cusack and Curtis Armstrong (aka Booger). In the movie, Cusack’s mother makes a gloppy and unappetizing meal, with raisins. As the mother slops the gelatinous goo onto his plate, she says in a nasally voice, “It’s got raisins ... You like raisins.” For years, Kim and I have modified this statement to, “It’s got adventure ... You like adventure.” We routinely say this when the misery of our surroundings reaches a fever pitch and one of us shows signs of cracking. 

Leaving the shore of the beach, we braced for the next “adventure” we were in for. A wall of green immediately greeted us, and within minutes we could no longer see the lake behind us, any more than we could see our escape from the foliage, still days ahead.

The line we’d drawn on the map involved going up and over a steep col, which we initially assumed we’d be beyond after the first day. As we neared the summit, I began to feel sick to my stomach and lightheaded. On the bright side, it’d begun to rain again — and hard. Eventually I was overtaken by the sickness, and I dolefully told Kim I needed to stop for the day.

On the only semi-level ground around, we set up a sad and pathetic camp between lumpy spruce tree roots — in the downpour. When the last drop of tea hit my stomach, I projectile vomited it and everything else back out, ruining a precious corner of level real estate. “Could it be the moldy jerky or that weird suicidal herring we ate?” Kim asked, half joking. “Or maybe I am allergic to bushwhacking with a bike,” I offered. Both of us chose to stifle the unspeakable and did not utter the dreaded word on both our minds — giardia. I fought hard against the urge to feel sorry for myself. "Adventure ... I like adventure." 

As we neared the end of the brambles two days later, Kim finally broke down, threw her bike with all her force, and shouted at the forest like a she-devil. Tears of frustration erupted from her eyes. Although we’d been throwing our bikes through the brush for days, she composed herself, turned to me with the tears still on her puffy cheeks, and jokingly said, “I’m sorry. I know you are never supposed to throw a bike in anger.”

After a lazy float down the Dangerous River and a short portage around class IV rapids we were finally on the Gulf Coast. “I guess it was a bushwhack allergy after all,” I said to Kim. My symptoms had cleared, and our optimism began to ratchet back up. A few more headlands were all that remained before the long, open beach riding would finally begin. Unfortunately a new storm was developing. 

That night I patched a small hole in my raft, and we discussed our plan for the following day. Ten miles as the crow flies was all that separated us from Icy Cape —the end of the open water paddling and the beginning of the long, uninterrupted beach we’d worked hard to reach. We crossed our fingers. With an early start, we hoped to sprint past this pelagic obstacle and remain ahead of the storm.

Our hearts were in our throats as we rounded the cape in the dim, overcast light of morning. Huge and erratic seas sloshed us up and down as the swell crashed into the cape and sent the waves rebounding back. The storm had moved in faster than predicted. Once away from the confused and lumpy seas near the cape, we began to feel the full weight and size of the uninterrupted ocean swells as they passed under our rafts. Our plan to reach Icy Cape evaporated and it was apparent that we needed a new one and soon, before conditions became worse and our options disappeared entirely.

On our map the southern beach of Boussole Bay seemed to be the only semi-reasonable option. The southeast swell would be somewhat smaller on that end of the beach, we figured, because a small cape offered some protection from the full onslaught of the waves. As we neared the beach, I cautiously moved into the surf zone. After watching several big sets move through, I pulled hard on my paddle, rode the back of a wave in, jumped out, and drug the raft up the beach. I turned around just in time to see Kim being overtaken and swamped by a wave. In a flash, she was out of the water and running her gear up to me. Dripping wet and with wide eyes, she said, “That’s the limit.” 

Three days later we sat in our shelter, still pinned down, and began to debate our options. Returning the way we’d come was, on the surface, unthinkable. But even if it came to retreating back over the bushwhack, that door had been shut by the storm. The beach we’d need to land on to retreat was now being hammered by 9-foot swell, as were the beaches ahead. The apprehension about our situation had no resolution. We could only cut our food rations and hope that the storm would soon pass.

When the clouds lifted a little, we could see Icy Cape, a mere 8 miles distant, being battered by the waves. Icy Cape or the moon, it didn’t matter that we could see it. We were hemmed in and stranded. As the rain-soaked days wore on we added smaller and smaller portions of food to our already-watery meals, and Kim took to jigging for rockfish to help supplement our dwindling stores. After five days, we took stock of the remaining food — two days’ full rations remained, with over 100 miles still to go and no end in sight for the storm. It was time, we agreed. With heavy hearts we punched a message into our two-way satellite texting device: “Send a plane to these coordinates, please.” 

Southeast Alaska is typically a wet region, but summer 2015 was the wettest and stormiest on record. The community of Sitka experienced a lethal landslide and a sinkhole in the month of August, due to the persistent and heavy rain. Our expedition was ambitious, and it required no small amount of luck. Sadly this was not the season for luck.

As we lifted off the beach in the wheeled, single-engine “bush plane,” I was filled with tremendous remorse. We’d fought hard to reach the semi-open terrain suitable for the bikes only to be denied access. "Were we just being soft, I wondered? Were we giving up too easy?"

Our air taxi was based out of Yakutat, which had been our next objective. The pilot flew below the clouds along our proposed route back to the village. As I looked down at the swell-battered coastline and the rain-swollen creeks, it finally sank in — we hadn’t stood a chance. 

Nineteenth century Norwegian explorer and scientist, Fridtjof Nansen, once said, “Have you not succeeded? Continue! Have you succeeded? Continue!”

With that in mind - we continue. 

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