We were the only white people at the tiny airport in Kotzebue as our beat up bikes boxes were pushed through the little baggage window. It was very quiet, folks here don't talk as much as we do. Some smiled, some nodded their heads hello. It's still winter here in early April. No one asked why we had bikes. That's OK -we did not have a good answer. BTW we had Surly FatBikes - which at the time were the ONLY Fatbikes. (My bike is a Pugsley & Pat built his own FatBike from his old Surly 1x1, named Pinky) Our frame bags were made by Mark Gronewald.
Pat had been searching all over Alaska for a unique place to ride our big fat SURLY bikes. I have the purple single speed Pugsley bike with SURLY Endomorph tires and Pat has a Surly 1X1 that he modified ...welded and beat with a hammer until he could fit the Endomorph tires on. He named it Porky. Its a fine pink bike with black welding blotches.
We just needed to find a trail that is used by snow machines on a regular basis and a good weather window. Good luck in Alaska in March with rising gas prices.
After many phone calls and emails, Pat found a possible trail from Kotzebue to Buckland and then a good chance of a trail from Buckland to Koyuk, then the well used Iditarod trail to Nome. The internet showed smiley face sunshine for the next 8 days in that area.
To find this route Pat called many villages –talking to store clerks, dog clubs, whoever he could reach to get any info he could. He reached a man named Billy who worked for search and rescue in Kotzebue. Billy wasn't real excited about us doing this trip. He insisted on meeting us in Kotzebue to see for himself how crazy we really were.
As we flew over Kotzebue I looked out the window at pure flat white. No trees, no mountains, no trails, no roads. Then it really sunk in that this is above the Arctic Circle and it really is exposed out here. Duh. Open and frozen ocean on one side, frozen ocean inlets all around. Wind, COLD wind, wind and more COLD wind.
Billy showed up as we were putting our bikes together and we planned to meet him for breakfast. We followed him on our bikes as he drove to a restaurant with a 4 star view of the frozen, white, wind blown Kotzebue Sound & Chukchi Sea. The air was biting cold. I felt a little trickle of fear as I breathed in the arctic air and the inside of my nose froze. We passed a mother rapped in fur pushing a stroller, the baby completely hidden under a thick caribou hide. Dogs barked at us as they strained on their heavy chains, the snow squeaked under our tires.
breakfast with Billy
Billy showed us on the map where we were going, we never would have figured it out on our own. His instructions were like: when you get to the big flat frozen ocean turn right at the cliffs, watch for snow machine trail. Don't take the real sharp right hand turn a ways up from there -you don't want to go that way- it would be real bad. ..those kind of instructions. He showed us a shelter cabin on the map. He asked us if we had done anything like this in the REAL cold before. and asked if we had a radio and GPS. We did not.If anyone only reads this far...do not travel this far north without a VHF radio and a GPS
2. OUT THERE
Friday morning we left Kotzebue. The town was quickly swallowed up by white vast wilderness . Our destination was Buckland, a small village only accessible by snow machine or boat in summer, and now for the first time BICYCLES!
Billy had said he would call Buckland and let the search and rescue know we were coming and if we were not there by Monday morning he would come looking. He was very worried and we felt guilty for putting this burden on him. His concern also made us even more aware that we needed to be REALLY careful.
We do not know how far it is to Buckland. Some said 50 miles, some 75, others said 45, later we figured it was about 95-100 the way we went.
Most folks would say, oh about a half day on snow machine, if weather is good.
The trail was hard and well used by snow machines. The wind was at our backs and the sun was in our eyes - we actually felt hot. The first 10 miles made us wonder why there are not more people out here doing this! A snow machine passed us and slowed down to look and gave a thumbs up to be sure we were OK. We gave thumbs up, he nodded and continued on.
NO ONE passed us without checking on our condition. And the word spread fast about the two crazy white folks on bicycles.
wonder why are there more cyclists out here !?
Accidental photo of my Finland felt boot 3 sizes too big. ( that i also wore Neos Over boots over when it got windy. Layered foot system to prevent sweaty feet that freeze.
As we started down towards Hotham inlet off the Chukchi sea that everyone called "The Lake" the wind switched directions and I struggled for control in a small ground blizzard on the steep icy descent as 3 snow machines passed us. At the bottom they stopped to see if they were seeing things. They were headed to a basketball tournament in Selawik. One of them was a trooper. They thought we were nuts. But then I thought who's really nuts here? These folks regularly risked their lives traveled 50-100 miles on snow machine through the toughest country in the world to just see a basket ball game!
But then again they KNEW what they were getting into.
As the wind picked up I was instantly frozen.
As they talked to Pat I tried to be nonchalant as I quickly put my wool shirt back on under my coat as it flapped in the 20-30 below zero wind. Suddenly I realized my fingers were frozen too. They were asking if we had a radio and if any one knew where we were going. We said no radio, but yes Billy knows about our route. No need for last names out here. As I swung my arms like a helicopter forcing the blood back to my fingers, I am sure they thought we were good as dead.They told us again to be careful before they drove away. It was a nice sunny day and the freezing wind off the frozen ocean sent a chill through my soul.
I never took layers off again. The Conditions change too quickly & deathly out here. We're not in Kansas anymore.
nice trail ! but not for long..
happily headed to the wrong village
3. SASTRUGI AND WIND
Sastrugi (pronounced sass-TRUE-gee) is a series of wave-like ridges of HARD snow that often resemble frozen waves.
We were cycling happily across a frozen ocean following a snow machine path when Pat stopped and said we might have missed a right hand turn.
I looked around at pure white in all directions. OK, yeah right.
We sat there and had a snack as the cold wind began to creep in under our layers. A snow machine was coming our way so we waited.
A husband and wife bundled up in fur parkas stopped and looked at us for several silent moments. Then the man spoke up from under his fur lined hood and face mask "Where are you going?"
He said "This is not the way to Buckland. You are headed to Selawik. And you cannot ride a bike to Buckland. It is impossible."
He pointed to the cliffs of Baldwin Peninsula (the only obvious route to Buckland) and said "you follow those south until a right turn that cuts over to the shelter cabin"..and added again,
"you cannot ride a bike to Buckland that is crazy. No..
It cannot be done. "
After he explained a few more times we could not ride our bikes to Buckland, we waved good bye and headed across the hard wind sculpted snow (SASTRUGI ) towards the cliffs about a half mile away across the frozen inlet. It was like riding on frozen waves. Up and up and then wham down the other side. Snow was mostly hard packed by the extreme wind and cold except for the hollow places of sand-like snow where our wheels would dig in and I would be ejected onto the barren seascape in a big heap. I would lay there and think "Maybe you can't ride a bike to Buckland..."
moose in the distance - running from us
With the sun shining and white frozen waves, it was kind of like being on a beach except it was about 20 below zero F.
When we reached the cliffs we looked for a snow machine trail-which would have been the right hand turn we had missed when we had reached Hotham Inlet. (called "the Lake" by locals)
We could see an occasional indent in the show of what had been a track. Gee and this was supposed to be a well used trail.
the "trail" we missed
But we had the cliffs to guide us and the snow was hard and we stayed on top- most of time. We headed south with the cliffs of narrow Baldwin Peninsula separating us from Kotzebue Sound.
most of the time we stayed on top..but sometimes we did an en-do
Even though we had very nice weather, the wind never stopped. Occasionally a gust from Kotzebue Sound blasted through valleys of the narrow peninsula and it made us shudder to think that this is the GOOD weather.
It didn't take long for the constant wind to begin to affect me. It stirred up a primal fear deep in side.. a dull terror in the pit of my stomach. Knowing that at any moment the caress of this frigid wind could turn into a deadly assault. The weather was BIG here and we were very very small and the wind was a constant reminder. There was NO where to hide out here. I wished we had the radio and GPS. I wished I had a hood on my fancy Sugoi jacket. A part of me was thoroughly enjoying being out there but I felt very humble and thankful for every sunny uneventful moment.
I have GREAT respect for the Inupiat people who have lived and thrived in this climate for 1000s of years. Its a kind of stamina and endurance I cannot even begin to fathom.
4. Shadow Fox Spirits
We cycled all day long at about 5-6 mph. After the man said we could not bike to Buckland, we did not see anyone else that day. There was no trail to speak of. But thank goodness for the very obvious Baldwin Peninsula cliffs on our right to keep us pointed in the right direction.
Billy had thought we would make it to the "Shelter Cabin" that night maybe. We looked at the map around 5 pm and realized we were not even half way to the cabin. Even though the snow was mostly hard, it had varying layers of loose sand-like snow on top and sometimes it felt like I was spinning in place. For more excuses :the load, the wind, and the far below (our zipper pull thermometer) zero temperatures added to the slowness of our single speeds. Around 4 pm I also vowed to train more next time. Nordic skiing an hour, walking the dogs, and eating bon-bons does not prepare one for this type of event. But heck its not a race, this was our vacation and we were supposed to be having fun.
white snow & ice forever
The sun would be setting around 9 pm so at 7 we started thinking about setting up camp. We would see something ahead that looked like it could be shelter from the wind and when we'd get there 20 minutes later it would turn out to be a WIND TUNNEL funneling hurricane force winds from the Kotzebue Sound. Nope, not a good place to camp. And there were no little AAA camp site markers on our map.
At some point I was walking my bike through a sand-snow trap and I felt or heard some movement. Looking up I saw a black Fox walking on the higher ground to my right. The sun was setting behind him and he had an orange aura around his fuzzy body. The wind was spinning snow all around him. Suddenly he saw me and almost flipped over with fear as he scampered up and out of sight- like a sparkling shadow spirit. In the wind I heard a noise but it was hard to tell what.Then another black fox popped out of the bushes and ran after the other into pink and orange blowing sparkling snow haze. I stood there absorbing the experience for a moment. It was really a neat feeling to see those animals. I looked around and saw their little tracks all around. Then I realized the wind was not pummeling my head. This was a little alcove of sorts from the wind. It was still windy but not as bad and we were tired. We decided to camp there. Thanks to the Shadow Fox Spirits that pointed it out.
shadow fox camp site
We set up camp and we soon found out our stove pump was not working. Pings of fear started again. Ping. Ping.
But Thank God Pat is so calm and clever when I go Pinging. It took some time and it was hard to use his hands in the cold but he figured out that the pump had ice in it. Before we left home to get rid of the gas smell from our stove (for the airplane security) we had washed out all the parts and thought we had dried it thoroughly. But a little bit of moisture in the tube was now a little ice cube that clogged it. Once Pat got that fixed, with great relief I made dinner and lots of hot tea.The snow was very dry and sugary and took a about 20 times as much snow to make a quart of water. We realized that we would have to watch our fuel closely.
Kathy hunkered over the stove- its about 40 below - takes alot of fuel to melt cold loose snow in these temps
coldest night ever ( and it was balmy compared to normal weather)
We then got into our bags and had the coldest night sleep either of us had ever had. I was in a forty below bag with all my layers and coat on and I was shivering and putting hand warmers in my socks, hat, pants, gloves, everywhere. When I would doze off, my feet would start to get numb from the cold. I would wake up wondering if a healthy person could actually die this way in her sleep. Ping. I got up once to go outside and saw the most vivid northern lights I've ever seen, I could even hear them crackling, or maybe it was my brain freezing. But THANK FULLY the wind remained a low roar and did not get worse. This was our vacation and it was fun.
5. Another Sunny Day
At -30 below F the morning dawned clear as a bell. We were glad we were alive. Next trip - we agreed to get better sleeping bags. But for now we needed breakfast.
Pat got our pre-made frozen breakfasts out of the bike bags outside. I boiled water inside the tent in an attempt to get a little warmth. Our tent of no floor was breezy enough that it would be hard to get carbon monoxide poisoning. I boiled water and made coffee, then added boiling water to our meals as we enjoyed the illusion of warmth in the tent as the sun beat down on the yellow walls. I had mixed farina & oats plus 2 packs of instant flavored oats, powdered milk, butter, dried fruit in individual zip lock bags that I added about 1.5 cups of water to.
We were realizing how much more fuel we used for boiling water up here in the Arctic than in Anchorage. With the extreme cold, the constant wind, and the loose dry snow we had to melt, we were using about twice the fuel than we had planned for.
As we shook the fuel container to see what was left I got another Ping of fear. We should have known better. But it was almost April for crying out loud...yikes. Even though we both have extensive outdoor adventure experience...we had found a place where we felt like amateurs.
We packed up and got onto our cold creaky bikes, and rode into the sun.
My feet were cold. We had bought chemical hand warmers by the big box full at Costco and so I decided I would use them for foot warmers too. Well, hand warmers need more oxygen and do not work in the boots where there is no oxygen. ( rookie mistake!) After stopping and taking boots off in 30 below and who knows what wind chill and kneading the darn hand warmers over and over, with frozen hands, I finally got them to heat up a little in my boots. Now I always have boxes of toe warmers on hand.
I had frozen my feet during a 200 mile ski race years ago - when winning was more important than saving body parts...and I was paying the price now.
We had a mix of hard SASTRUGI and soft smooth snow, not bad riding but not easy either. It was work for me. As the day wore on the wind picked up, a constant cold reminder that if you sat down too long you would die. We hugged the bluff that separated us from Kotzebue Sound and noticed that the snow machine tracks did not take any short cuts across the open areas. If there was a curve in the peninsula, they hugged the land. No short cuts. We paid attention to this and did the same. We also noticed that the snow machine tracks were like a wild animals' tracks. They did not wander or do random loops like the recreational riders near Anchorage. The people out here had a purpose and they did not waste time or energy. Another reminder that this was not a recreational hub.
As we came around the windy curve of one of the many extended frozen bays, we saw a gray weathered cross standing in the snow up on the land. There was nothing else around except snow and wind. We got off our bikes and walked over to look.
Her name was Alice, and she died in 1952, eight years before I was born. The wind picked up around us and I felt tears forming and was not sure why. Was it the wind bothering my eyes? It felt very sad here.
it felt so sad here..even so many years later
7. Hunted like a Moose
Hours later I was concentrating on how to make certain body parts not ache or be bothered by the repetitive motion of cycling about 4-5 miles an hour over constantly changing snow conditions. We no longer stopped to eat. It was too bloody cold. We'd walk the bikes while eating our frozen snack after we had put it under an arm pit to warm it enough so as not to break our teeth.
We heard the noise first then we saw a shape far ahead zig zagging towards us. We zigged back towards the trail to meet this person. He slowed down and zig zagged some more. We wondered what he was doing. Then he went faster and drove up to us.
He stopped a few feet from us and turned off his machine. Two freshly killed caribou in his sled and the largest dead white rabbit I'd ever seen. He had a large rifle strapped across his blood stained chest.
No one said anything for a few seconds.
Then he said
"I thought you were moose."
He stared at us in silence ... trying to figure out what in the heck we were.. moose would make more sense.
"I was deciding how to approach. But then you did not act like moose, so I decided to come see what you were."
"I have never seen bikes out here "
'Whew' I was sure glad we did not act like moose.
He was hunting for his family in Kotzebue. Folks out here rely on subsistence hunting to survive. He looked like a tough and seasoned Inupiat Hunter, except I noticed he had a pink Barbie doll back pack strapped to his steering wheel.
When I asked about the Barbie pack he laughed-"I could not find my pack early this morning so I borrowed my daughters pack to put my lunch in."
We had the usual conversation of 'did we have a radio and what are we doing on bikes and how far to Buckland'. He said the shelter cabin had a stove and it was not too far from here. (it would take us another 7 hours to get there) he wished us luck and he was gone.
After that we would turn on our head lights when we saw snow machines.
And we would try not to 'act' like moose. So they would not think we were animals to be hunted.
glad he didn't add us to his basket
8. The Ritz
A few hours after the moose hunter, we heard a couple of machines come up behind us. One of the men almost jumped off his machine before it stopped, he was so excited to see bicycles. His behavior was different than others we had met so far that were reserved with very few words.
They had thought we were on motorcycles because our tire tracks were so wide and thought that was crazy, but this was incredible! He went on to explain that it had already been a very unusual day, when he had gotten a early morning call from a sister whom he did not know he had. "she had been raised by white folks" he said and was so excited he had a new sister. We looked at this blue eyed, sandy haired man referring to "white folks" and realized we were in a land where we didn't know anything anymore.
His quiet friend just smiled and said nothing and eventually started burning garbage as we continued to talk about all kinds of things like how far to the shelter cabin and what are the chances of us missing the turn to go overland, and when will he meet his new found sister.
I had learned to put my down parka on as soon as we stopped, so I would not get hypothermic. After a while they left on their machines in a flurry of blowing snow. As we started out again I kept the coat on for a long time before I got warm again. After about about an hour we saw a message scratched into the snow for us, from them.
"God Bless You" it said.
A warm feeling washed over me knowing that we were not alone and these nice people were thinking good thoughts for us.
Since people had said there was a stove at the shelter cabin, we began to look for wood. We found 2 pieces in 5 hours, and strapped them carefully to our bikes.
We finally made a right turn up and over from ocean to land. And the wind from the Sound began to blow against us. I put my rain coat over all my layers to help keep the cold fingers of wind out.
(we were told it actually rains out here this time of year in between the sub zero temps, so we had brought rain coats) I had as many hats and face masks that I could wear. And the snow was terrible for riding, fine sugar and we were spinning in place. That was a very long 5 miles across. Eventually we began to drop down hill to the ocean, and when we saw the tiny cabin around 8pm it was like seeing the Ritz Carlton.
the ritz !
The cabin had been completely trashed by a brown bear the previous summer. Later we learned he had gotten in and couldn't get out so had broken all the windows and smashed the stove. So we put our two pieces of wood next to the other meager pieces of wood that had been wishfully stacked near the broken stove. Pat can fix anything and he could not fix that stove. I proceeded to sweep up the broken glass, spam cans, garbage, and torn up insulation. Thankfully there was part of a broom so we could clean up. And thank fully someone had replaced the windows. We don't think many people actually sleep here on purpose. So we made it nice for our stay. It felt HOT inside out of the wind- I didn't even put on my down jacket. Then when boiling water, some spilled on the table and it froze before it hit. So I guess it wasn't actually warm, but being out of the wind was such a relief!
That night around midnight a man stopped by to check on us, as he said he would as we had seen him near Kotzebue. He was hauling a boat all the way from Kotz to Buckland! He wanted to make sure we had made it to shelter cabin. We were thankful for his concern.
The Ritz comes with free frozen bear poop
luxury accommodations & you can see your breath
We slept well, and were glad that bears hibernate in winter.
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.
crossing to elephant point
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 consistent 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? 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.
following the trail markers
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.
Elephant Point, with fish drying rack and camp behind me
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.
couple crossing the bay
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.
caribou watched us go by on our bikes
Eventually the boaters pulled away and we did not see them again.
like riding the beach at -30 below
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.
mystery animals way off in the distance- playing
the river ice road to Buckland
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.
Dogs chained out with a dead caribou to chew on
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..