Alaska, Featured, Outdoors, Travel

There Is No Tomorrow – Fat-Biking and Packrafting the Arctic of Alaska – Part 1

By Bjorn Olsen –

Point Hope to Point Lay

As far as I can tell, Alaskan natives never fry muktuk. By the sixth day of our Arctic fat-bike expedition, the zip-lock bags containing the traditional super-food – whale blubber and skin, typically eaten raw – we’d been gifted in Point Hope, began to look a little worse for the wear. We still had a long, hard way to go before our next food resupply in Point Lay and throwing it out was unthinkable. Frying seemed a logical and safe solution. On an open fire, with our titanium pot lid, I dumped in a dozen or so small pieces. What came out were crispy, easily chewable, little nuggets of high calorie goodness; perfect food for the long workday ahead.

We were on the shore of the Arctic Ocean – a lifelong dream and ambition. Traveling in remote areas of Alaska by human-power has been a passion since my teenage years. I have always been captivated by stories of great adventurers like Knud Rasmussen, Peter Freuchen, Roald Amundsen, and others. With a fat-bike and a packraft, exploration feels novel, but more importantly it is often exciting and even fun.

For much of the previous winter, my partner Kim McNett and I schemed on a bicycle traverse of the roof of Alaska – from Point Hope to Utqiagvk (Barrow) then onward to Deadhorse and Kaktovik. On Google Earth, we would zoom in and out, swapping between the USGS topographic layer and back to satellite view, and tried to envision the terrain.

Few modern adventurers have made this trip by human-power and, as far as we know, no one has tried to employ a bicycle. Yet, for thousands of years, Americas first people trod, paddled, and dog sledded along the north shore of Alaska. Many continued east through the Inuit Passage (Northwest Passage) all the way across the Canadian Arctic and onto Greenland. We would be traveling in the shadows of Alaska’s oldest ancestors.

“How will we find water,” Kim would ask, while pointing to a large region of the map. “Can we carry enough food?” “What about nanooks?” Our individual natures lay most bare when we are designing improbable trips – Kim: cautious and shrewd. Me: hopelessly optimistic. “We’ll figure it out,” was my response to most of her pressings. I often offer little reassurance in these instances, but this combination of character traits seems to serve us well.

Early in our planning, Kim and I discussed the idea of inviting others. Simplicity, with the fewest variables, is our typical approach to these trips; however, in this instance, we rationalized that more people would equate to a safer expedition. More people standing shoulder to shoulder can intimidate a bear and more people means one can stay with someone in the event of injury while others go for assistance. And, for a trip of this length, more people translate to a more varied experience.

Homer based custom bicycle frame-builder and our long-time adventure buddy, Daniel Countiss, was in, plus another well-traveled wilderness adventure bum from Anchorage. Unexpectedly, and at the eleventh hour, the Anchorage friend dropped out. Homer high school art teacher, Alayne Tetor, a backcountry skier and close friend, was able to jump onto the trip at the last minute, but would only be able to travel as far as Point Lay.

“Did you remember your bike and packraft?” Kim joked. “Yep,” I said. “Shelter, sleeping pad and quilt?” “Yep.” As we waited for the Ravn Air flight to take off from Anchorage we teased each other. “If we forgot something, it’s too late now.” Months of meditation and preparation, plus years of dreaming had led us to this moment. The plane left the ground; our trip had begun.

On our second day out of Point Hope we whizzed along the coast in our packrafts. The soft gravel beach we’d been slowly riding had brought us to a series of unrideable cliffs. A tailwind emboldened our decision to opt for the sea rather than push our bikes up the steep slope into the hills. With each passing hour, the wind built and white caps began to form. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to paddle in front of Cape Lisburne,” I asked to no one in particular.

A self-preservation tactic I have learned is to run worst-case scenarios in my head and imagine the sequence of events, envisioning a positive outcome. As the wind continued to build and the surface of the sea became more robust, I looked to the shore and felt reassured that we could escape from the sea and retreat to higher ground if need be. Eventually, however, the cliff faces steepened and the easy exits began to evaporate. We decided it was time to get off the water before it was too late and pedal back to a creek drainage we’d seen to camp for the night. Not until we turned into the wind did we appreciate how strong it had become.

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That night as we slept, the vibration of our nylon shelters flapping in the wind increased in frequency and volume. What had been a strong breeze developed into a gale, punctuated with powerful gusts. “Grab the corner,” I shouted to Kim who was in a dead sleep and hadn’t yet realized one of the four anchors of our shelter had torn loose. She had the unfortunate luck of being the one closest to the door. I held the center pole to keep the shelter from being ripped away as she exited her warm cocoon into the maelstrom. I could hear Daniel and Alayne struggling to keep their shelter from being rent from their anchors, too. In a few minutes, she returned wide-eyed. “Holy s**t! It’s really blowing!”

The Beaufort Wind Scale labels wind speeds between 56 and 63 knots as a violent storm. Anything above 64 knots is a hurricane. For the next four-days, the winds hovered between these two classifications. We became sober-faced and hyper conscious. Simple tasks like adding or removing a jacket required methodical intention. To let go of a strap or sleeping pad, even for a second, meant risking it being blown out of reach, most likely never to be seen again. Each of us at various times, when the strongest gusts hit, was entirely thrown from and over our bikes.

The Lisburne Hills are the westernmost extent of the Brooks Range, residing several degrees above the Arctic Circle and terminating into the Chukchi Sea. The treeless landscape looks ancient and it was easy for me to imagine herds of mammoth, mastodon, and steppe bison roaming about, with Paleo-Arctic hunters hot in pursuit. As we pushed our bikes up and away from the coast, my mind whirled. Despite the strong wind, I was in a bliss state. This was what I’d come for – raw, unadulterated Arctic wilderness. With the wind at our back we began to ride up and over the mountains. For the next two-days we were treated to the best off-trail cycling I’ve ever experienced.

We emerged out of the hills and onto a pebble beach some five-miles east of Cape Lisburne. For some inexplicable reason, our two-way satellite tracker/texting device had been rapidly losing power. Our only chance of recharging the potentially lifesaving device would be to retreat to the cape, to Wevok – a Cold War era radar site – in the hopes someone was there, and that they had an outlet we could usurp for an hour.

“There is no tomorrow,” one of the four permanent employees at Wevok told us. I assumed, at first, he meant that the sun never sets in the summer and never rises in winter, and therefore there is no such thing as a tomorrow. As he continued, however, I realized he meant something different: “If you have a good day in the Arctic, do not waste it.” He said. “Tomorrow, the wind may be screaming and whatever chore you needed done will have to wait for who knows how long.” We didn’t have the luxury of sitting out bad days but his metaphor was good and it rolled around in my mind for the entirety of the trip.  

The average annual snowfall for much of the North Slope is around 30 inches; not much when compared to other regions of Alaska. Due to the persistent and often strong wind, little of this snow ever falls straight to the ground. As a result, massive snow drifts form on the leeward faces of cliffs, bluffs, and valleys.

As we made our way east and north, toward Point Lay, the previous winter’s snow presented a unique challenge. Many beaches were entirely off limits due to the glacier-like snow faces that terminated into the sea. In other areas we could sneak in front of the snow but the trick was trying to avoid being assaulted by crashing waves. Once, in order to avoid a particularly bad stretch, we traversed a creek and rode it to the top of a pass, pushed our bikes over the divide and rode another valley back down to the beach. And, when the sea was calm enough, we paddled our packrafts to avoid the steep snow faces. The flexibility of our three modes of travel – riding, pushing and paddling – allowed us to circumvent this rare challenge; the going was never mundane.

As the hills eventually faded into our rearview, the snow diminished and the beach riding became more straightforward. Daniel, however, began to show symptoms of malaise. A sore throat and low energy had gotten ahold of him and his fun-meter tanked. Thankfully, we were closing the gap to Point Lay. Once there, we could reassess and take a well-deserved rest.

Before we left home, I met with my friend Bretwood Highan, a geologist, who’d worked on the North Slope monitoring coastal erosion and climate change impacts, with the organization ShoreZone. With his help, I uploaded dozens of waypoints, called shore stations, that had been created in years past by ShoreZone. These shore stations are typically located in areas where bluffs are falling into the sea or where rapid permafrost melt occurs. We’d been tasked with a citizen-science project to relocate the stations with our GPS, record field observations, photograph, and re-measure each location. Evidence of rapid climate change can be found throughout Alaska – a state warming twice as fast as the rest of the nation and four times faster in winter – but in the Arctic the evidence is glaring.

We stopped to filter water and fill every dromedary we had at the last creek before riding onto Kasegaluk Lagoon – which, at 125 miles, is one of the world’s longest lagoons – where we knew there’d be none. “This tastes brackish to me,” I said. We each in turn took a sip and agreed. The creek we were drawing from was several feet above the sea but in the lowland region of the North Slope finding sweet water was a challenge. After exploring further up and finding it had the same taste we resigned ourselves to the slight brine flavor and hoped our kidneys could handle the extra workload.

Our last camp, before reaching Point Lay, was near the old village site, on the island. In the 1980s, the village relocated from the outer-coast barrier island we’d been traveling on to the mainland – protecting it from the now common fall storms on an ice-free ocean. We opted to make the final crossing in the morning. Little did we realize that most of the village was hard at work butchering 33 beluga they’d hunted earlier in the day and that we were coming to town on the day of Nalukatuq – the annual spring whaling festival.

To be Coninued in Part two: Point Lay to Utqavigk

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