AN ALASKAN ODYSSEY BY WHEEL AND WATER
Words by Bjorn Olson
I wanted to introduce myself along with the rest of the small team that will be joining me this fall on a previously un-attempted fat bike and packraft trip through an intriguing and rarely visited corner of Alaska. Our little cadre of three will be made up my girlfriend who is, amongst other winning traits, my principal trip-partner, best friend, a naturalist/artist and well-versed wilderness adventure bum, Kim McNett.
Daniel Countiss, a veteran to rowdy and remote fat bike expeditions, a former Georgian and now fellow Homer, Alaska resident, will also be joining us. Daniel is a professional welder and is owner/operator of the custom bicycle company Defiance Frameworks. His personal bike is a customized reflection of the terrain we regularly find ourselves traversing – light but strong, simple, big tired, and capable
Kim stokes a fire on the shore of the Seward peninsula. The Arctic and Sub-Arctic is almost entirely devoid of trees. Driftwood and dry willow branches are the best option for fires.
For my own part, I am a born and raised Alaskan with a life-long passion for exploring the Great Land by human-power. My original appetites were for mountaineering, climbing, and expedition kayaking, but over the past dozen years I have been consumed with the bottomless joy of finding my limits on a fat bike, often with the aid of a packraft, in the backcountry. Photography, filmmaking, and writing are the secondary excuses I proffer to justify time spent in the hinterlands.
Bjørn poses with a musk ox skull, atop a sea cliff overlooking the Bering Sea on the Seward Peninsula. In the summer of 2009, Bjørn and Kim fat biked the Seward Peninsula together for the first time.
I liken the sport of fat biking to rock or ice climbing: riding challenging, rough, uneven and technical terrain near home is a wholly engaging, mind clearing activity that helps prepare and sharpen the skills required for weeks-long expeditions. In this way, wilderness cycling has the hallmarks of other addictive and productivity assailing anti-social passions.
Our trip will be through the Seward Peninsula – beginning and ending just below the Arctic Circle, in the community of Nome. This region of Alaska has a look and feel of an unusual and bygone epoch. Pleistocene animals like musk ox and caribou meander and graze the peninsula’s slopes; crystal clear streams betray the pike, Arctic Grayling, and Dolly Varden swimming within; Snowy owls, Arctic jaegers, and willow ptarmigan swoop overhead and fill the air with cackles and calls; and low-bush cranberries, blueberries, and salmonberries (also known as cloudberries) litter the slopes and make their way into every breakfast or mid-day snack.
In the 1800s, musk ox went extinct in Alaska. Greenlandic musk oxen were reintroduced to the Seward Peninsula and other areas throughout Alaska and have been extremely successful.
Nearly ten years ago, Kim and I explored the Seward Peninsula during our first summer together. On that trip, we joined a friend who is well-regarded knife and ulu maker. In the winter, caribou naturally shed their antlers, and caribou antler is a prized knife handle material. With our friend, we spent two-weeks far afield combing through the high country in search of this bone-white and mossy-green tundra treasure. After harvesting several hundred pounds of antler with our friend, Kim and I spent another two weeks tromping around, soaking in remote hot springs, exploring and venturing as far as our fat bikes would allow. On that trip, we fantasized about the innumerable routes that appeared possible with the aid of a packraft. We are returning to attempt one of them.
A small band of caribou march past on their way to the ocean. In the summer months, insects plague caribou who seek relief by swimming in the ocean.
Since that trip, Kim and I have been to the Seward Peninsula several times in winter. We have ridden our fat bikes on the Iditarod Trail from both the north and south and crossed the entire peninsula on a rarely visited snow-trail, twice. We are excited to return to try something adventurous and original in this ancient and mysterious land that’s been home for thousands of years to the Inupiat Eskimo.
Fall in Northern Alaska can be inviting and beautiful beyond description as the tundra plants transition from green to radiant yellow and brilliant red; birds and animals are on the move in search of the last easy to acquire calories before the hard winter ahead or are beginning their long migrations south. For me, above almost all else, clear and crisp autumn air, filled with the delicious potpourri of earthy aromas, is the region and season’s most poignant and alluring feature.
Fall in Alaska can also be cruel and unforgiving: wet snowstorms can turn the dirt into a sticky paste, gumming up chains and brakes; hard frosts can make mornings difficult when trying to force cold feet into frozen socks; strong winds that spill onto the Bering Sea, and send terrifying water spouts into the sky—often powerful enough to knock over full-grown men—can occur; or persistent rain and the accompanying low ceiling can transform the sky into weeks of merciless grey.
No other time of year has such power over the human psyche, as does autumn. We intend to rage against this transitional season, to meet it with open arms and embrace whatever mood we happen to find it in.
We will be using well-designed equipment, perfect for the traverse. We will follow dirt roads; we will paddle our Alpacka packrafts down rivers and over coastal lagoons; Kim and I will ride over tundra, drainages, sea cliffs, and beaches on our sturdy, well-made Salsa Cycles fat bikes. At the end of each day, we will scour the treeless landscape for dead and dry willow branches or bits of driftwood for the evening fire, and we will sleep in our Ultamid 4 floor-less shelter atop the primeval ground.
Daniel Countiss paddles offshore in the Chukchi Sea to connect sections of bikeable terrain.
Each foray into the wilderness is full of surprises and is an opportunity to experience something fascinating about our natural world. The trick is to be prepared for the worst and available for the best. “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal,” writes Henry David Thoreau, “and then leap in the dark to our success.” What this trip to the north will proffer up, we can only imagine.
With fat bikes and packrafts, on an untested route, in a landscape as wild as The Seward Peninsula, it’s bound, at the very least, to be stunning and attention-grabbing.