March 2006

written by Kathy Sarns Irwin ~ photos by Kathy and Pat Irwin

9.Elephants, Caribou and Boats

After breakfast we headed across 10 (or more) miles of frozen ocean called Eschscholtz Bay. We never heard anyone pronounce this strange name. Folks called it the lake..a common nick name for all the ocean bays and inlets around here.

The wind blew from our left (from the east) and the snow was shaped like frozen waves. The man that had stopped the night before had said the trail was really terrible so we were worried. But terrible on a snow machine was not as terrible on a bike. We were moving about 5 miles an hour and we went up one wave and down the other and it was hard work but not as jarring as riding over them at 30 + mph.

The 3rd day was the hardest for me. I realized again I had not really trained enough for this. I used to compete in nordic skiing, long distance wilderness and endurance races, etc. Then career and life got in the way, and well...the old base sort of ebbed away. As I wobbled along over the frozen waves I made another vow to work on a new consistant work out program. But hey this was our vacation, why should I train for that? This is not a race. And besides who in their right mind does this kind of stuff anyway and how does one train for this kind of thing? I bet even Lance Armstrong would be whining out here. Yup I bet. As I had this lively conversation in my head, and the wind blew, Pat patiently pedaled slowly behind me and tried to stay upright at our slow speed.

Eventually we saw shapes on the horizon and realized it was Elephant point, a very old former village site, dating back to prehistoric times! It is still used today in the summer by the Inupiaq Eskimos. We were surprised how far the fishing shacks & structures went out onto the peninsula shaped like an elephants head. Later when we would ask the kids in Buckland what they did in summer time, they would say "we go to Elephant Point to fish and hunt Beluga whales and have fun. We did not stay long at Elephant point. The frigid wind was blowing and it was not fun.

After we passed Elephant point, we met a couple going ice fishing. Their auger for drilling the ice was huge. We forgot to ask how deep the ice was.

The woman asked me in a quiet voice if we had been in a storm yet.

I said no.

She smiled and said nothing else.

They said we were almost to Buckland. We had learned that almost there meant many things and always hours more on bicycles.

The man had the standard rifle across his chest and smiled for the camera with Pat. As I took their picture, his quiet wife roared off on her machine, saying something about I bet he can't catch me. He left quickly after her and we were alone in the white sunshine.

As we started uphill, in the distance we saw a dark shape. For several hours as we got closer and closer, we tried to guess what it was. There was nothing else out here, so we noticed anything that wasn't white.

Eventually we reached it, to find an abandoned boat that the man had been hauling the night before (who had stopped to check on us). Soon he came back with his girlfriend to get the boat. They had run out of gas the night before so had gone to Buckland to get more gas. After they hooked the boat up, they actually were going slow enough that we took turns passing each other. The boat was on a crude wooden sled with caribou skins under the boat to protect it from the wood.

We had climbed a gradual mountain for several hours and now we got to ride down hill to get to the Buckland river. That was fun!

The boat passed by some caribou. Then we passed by the caribou and I waved and said hello. They just stared at us. I am sure they had never before seen a boat and cyclists pass by in one day.

Eventually the boaters pulled away and we did not see them again.

At one point during the day we saw two dark creatures playing in the distance. They were just out of our range of good sight so I took a picture. We hoped they were wolves, although I think they were probably fox or maybe wolverines. You can look at the picture for your best guess.

Finally we got to the Buckland River. Pat switched our single speeds to a higher gear so we could cruise a little faster on the harder trail. So we may have been cruising 7 to maybe 10 mph. Yippee. It was a long winding trail. It took over 2 hours before we saw signs of civilization. Eventually we followed a major path going off the river and were on a road that led into town!

Wow we were there. And who said we could not ride a bike to Buckland !?.

There were no signs posted but we were sure it was Buckland. We rode around wondering what to do next. No one was out, except some dogs. We found the school - a large multi-million dollar modern structure in the center of the small weather beaten houses. There were no cars, just four wheelers and snow machines parked in front of homes settling down for the evening. And lots of dogs tied up next to homes barking and howling at us.

A four wheeler stopped by us and I heard a familiar voice say from behind a frosted face mask "Kathy is that you? What the heck are you doing here? Don't tell me you rode your bikes here!"

And our adventure was just beginning..