HELL-BENT FOR THE ARCTIC:
BIKING ALASKA'S DALTON HIGHWAY
(published in National Geographic Adventure)
I would like to know what brings me to such moments of irony: When I am least able to flee, a bear comes. And not just any bear, but the first one of my trip. He is a slow, lumbering giant, a world-weary emperor with golden fur and tiny eyes that squint at me with myopic curiosity. I can’t ride my bike or run, having injured my knee, so I stand and watch him in return, though he is barely a hundred feet away.
I try to remember what I’ve been told—that I should move away slowly and make a lot of noise; if the bear follows, I should stand my ground. I push my bike forward, its overstuffed rear panniers knocking against my leg. These bags contain the essence of the past few weeks of my trip. Sixty-four pounds of fears and hopes rolled up in the sleeping bag and tent, stuffed between the soiled clothes, siphoned through the water filter into liquid I can drink, safely. I have carried them 800 miles across Alaska, through mountain passes and snow and then-90 degree sun that teased the Arctic tundra with warmth. And now, four days of riding from my goal at the Arctic Ocean, my body has had enough.
The bear follows. He takes a diagonal path, huffing at me. My moves dictate his: we slow down together, we speed up. He appears casual, as if in no hurry. He stops, he sniffs the air; he stares and squints and snorts. He allows for distractions: a quick rip at a blueberry bush, a detour around some stunted firs. But his course stays sure, with me at the other end of it. I do not have the courage to stand my ground, so I push bags and bike more quickly, my knee swelled like a melon but its pain dwarfed by my growing fear. The bear is about 80 feet away from me now. Seventy feet. Too close. I stop to pull out my canister of bear spray. Sixty. My life does not flash before my eyes—that is silly conjecture. There is nothing but each moment arising, separate and distinct, with adrenaline giving frantic commands. I obey. I lean my bike against me, holding the canister. Fifty feet. Forty-five. I pull out the safety pin.
The sound of a car coming seizes the bear’s attention. He stops. Raises on his hind legs. Then turns and retreats quickly into the tundra. A tourist minibus comes roaring to a stop beside me. When the bear is a safe distance away, the bus emits a crowd of beaming retirees with cameras and camcorders, trying to get a parting shot of him.
“Boy, it was coming right toward you,” one man says to me. He shakes his head, grinning.
I watch as the bear disappears behind some bushes. “Yeah,” I say. I’m still trying to believe that it’d happened. I feel as if I’m awakening into a dream.
“Where are you riding to?” his wife asks me.
I focus on her question. Riding. Where.
The pain returns to my knee, and I start pushing my bike again. “The Arctic Ocean,” I say, as if someone else had spoken the words. Somehow: the Arctic Ocean.
Four weeks ago, I arrived in Anchorage with my best buddy, Val. We had the idea that we would ride over a thousand miles through Alaska in a month, traveling the state’s most scenic highways—the Glenn, the Richardson, the Denali; then from the city of Fairbanks along the Elliott and up the Dalton—in a kind of S-shaped route to our objective at Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean. We would need to accomplish a mandatory 50 to 60 miles a day for the next 30 days. It seemed completely doable. Granted, bike riding wasn’t my specialty—I am a long-distance runner—but Val, the official cyclist between us, who gets kicks from peddling a hundred miles in a day, also had no concerns. Everything we needed for the trip we would carry ourselves, and we’d watch the beauty unfold as we relished the physical challenge: a thousand miles in a month. Perfect.
I’d like to say that I knew what I was doing, but in all truth I’d never toured with fully loaded panniers. (Nor, for that matter, had Val.) We only used rear ones, and my mountain bike felt unwieldy and heavy to me. It wobbled too much. Going uphill was a chore. Barely three miles out of town, I contemplated all the miles I had yet to go and felt foolish all of a sudden, like someone who charges forward with the starting gun but never asks for how many laps. Still, I reasoned, it’d just take some getting used to. And I had 30 days of trial and error ahead of me.
I’d undergone thorough preparation for the trip, figuring out what gear I would need, what road conditions I might encounter, and whether I should start early in the summer (with the unimaginable clouds of mosquitoes) or later (fewer bugs but frigid cold). I decided on the last week of July, an in-between time that would see me catching the autumnal colors of the tundra foliage just as the mosquitoes and biting flies were making their last stand.
Alaska outside of Anchorage was a joy, one of those rare places that delivers what it promises. We began our trip with a rainbow arcing across the sky, sunlight breaking through the clouds and setting the wet tundra bushes and fir trees gleaming. White-topped peaks rose in the distance, over land that showed no sign of human habitation beyond the highway and its “espresso exits.” It didn’t take us long to find wilderness in Alaska; less than one percent of the land is privately owned, civilization quickly becoming a novelty. The air had the faintly wistful smell of impending autumn, while the sun refused to set and hovered above the western horizon, granting perpetual day. The ground was a spongy soft tundra, like walking on a trampoline, and the countryside was covered with things you could eat: blueberries, choke berries, cranberries.
We pulled over at a roadside park to camp. A roaring glacial stream the color of frosty periwinkle cut through it, and glowing red salmon leaped and flashed past boulders. It was only our first night, and we had already found classic Alaska. We set up our tents beneath large pine trees, on moss so thick you could dip your hand into it. We put our food and scented items into a little bearproof canister and dropped it in the bushes 30 feet from our tents, going to bed in the broad sunlight of an Alaskan summer night.
Those first few days, I felt the giddy euphoria that only travel can bring, as if I were an inmate who had launched an audacious escape from a life of habit and routine. My bike held everything that I needed to be self-sufficient for a month; I wanted nothing beyond it. I couldn’t say what was going to happen to me from one day or hour to the next, but that was the point. This world expected nothing from me and made no demands. My duties to it were outrageously simple: keep pedaling.
No one had warned us about Alaska’s mountains or what it feels like to pedal 87 pounds of bike, water, and gear (not to mention our own poundage) up hill after hill. Our honeymoon with Alaska soon ended in the Talkeetna and Chugach mountain ranges, which gave a whole new meaning to the word “workout.” Our bikes popped little wheelies as we headed sharply uphill, the weight of the panniers conspiring with gravity to undo every inch of up that we accomplished. I tried out the lowest gear combinations, pedaling fiercely, my speedometer reading only two miles an hour. We could actually go faster by getting off the bikes and pushing them (three and a half miles an hour and great for the triceps), which we did less and less shamefully as the hours wore on. I could only compare riding with panniers to trekking with a heavy backpack. Not surprisingly, cycling has its own equivalent of using a porter, the “fully supported tour,” in which a van follows riders and carries all their gear and supplies. I was starting to suspect that doing it that way—the most common form of mountain bike touring in Alaska—might be a lot more fun.
In the valley below, Val and I were treated to frequent glimpses of the surging Matanuska River, which cut a wide swath through the mountains. Its source lay in a turquoise glacier of the same name, a spectacular formation 26 miles long and over three miles wide—one of the Glenn Highway’s premier tourist attractions. These incredible sights, coupled with our slow travel, lulled my brain, returned it to a place of peace.
During our first day through these mountains, the sun shone with 90-degree heat and we shed everything but bike shorts and tank tops. Alaska, a land of extremes, got moody the next day and decided to bring freezing rain. All of this while the “couple little hills” a woman had warned us about went on seemingly indefinitely. As the highway was nothing more than a one-lane road, we stuck to what little shoulder there was, trying to avoid Alaska’s most underestimated menace: RVs. Their drivers seemed to take sadistic pleasure in side-swiping cyclists, sending me more than once into a drainage ditch. Already I had developed a phobia for RVs that far exceeded my fear of bears. If anything was going to maim or kill me in Alaska, I’d decided, the RV was.
But bears came in second. The state is home to two species—the black and the grizzly—with, surprisingly, the former considered the most dangerous. You might yell and wave your arms to scare away a grizzly, but the Alaskan black bear is said to be notoriously unimpressed by such histrionics. To my chagrin, I heard first-person accounts of bear encounters from nearly every Alaskan I talked to, most of whom owned either a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum or a high caliber shotgun (one man had even mail-ordered for S &W’s new .50 Magnum which, he assured me, “could take a bear’s head clear off”). Still, there was a small contingent that swore by pepper spray, whistles, or just plain old fate. Val and I included ourselves in this group, opting for special bear spray at $40 a pop that was supposed to shoot as far as 30 feet. Still, there was only one thing that allowed me to sleep fearlessly through the nights: my earplugs. If I was going to get eaten, at least I wouldn’t want to hear it coming.
In the tiny town of Glacier View we found unexpected salvation from our uphill woes: highway repair. As the locals say, “There are two seasons in Alaska—winter and road construction,” and while the latter is the bane of the summer season for drivers, it gives exhausted bikers a great excuse to cheat: cyclists aren’t allowed to ride through construction zones. The driver of the point vehicle put our bikes in back of his truck and, with impetuous speed, carried us for miles through the mountains, up a series of killer hills, depositing us mercifully on the other side along a flat straightaway. Biker’s paradise now: a land of rolling green tundra and uninterrupted vistas. The only sign of civilization was a lonely roadhouse bearing a large sign in front that read, “Canada Sucks.” Otherwise, the silence.
Val and I reached Glennallen, the last town on the Glenn Highway. We stopped at the post office to mail home absolutely any clothes or gear we didn’t think we’d need, desperate to lighten our load and make the “up-ups” easier. The postmistress took one look at us and said, “You girls must be on a bike trip.”
We conceded that we were.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Missouri,” I said.
“You rode here all the way from Missouri?”
“Nooo!” Val and I said in terrified unison.
Two days later, in the small town of Paxson along the Richardson Highway, Val admitted that she’d had enough. An old lower back injury was starting to hurt her more and more. And she had come to the conclusion that this trip, requiring some eight hours of grueling riding each day for the next month, wasn’t the enjoyable way she wanted to see Alaska. She announced that she was quitting.
When I left Paxson early in the morning to start riding the Denali Highway, Val saw me off. She would hitch a ride back to Anchorage and head home to her fiancé. “I hate letting you down,” she said to me, tears in her eyes. She didn’t want to leave me to ride and camp alone, risking bear and RV encounters without her. As I peddled off, the loneliness of my trip immediately assailed me. It would take four days to ride the highway, and I was missing her already.
Travel magazines rank the largely unpaved Denali Highway as one of the top scenic highways in the world, and for good reason. I headed west through mile after mile of unadulterated country that surely has no match in the world. The beauties of summers here are a gift for Alaska’s interior, an apology for the tediously long winters. Gentle green plains slope gradually to the foot of the jagged glacial peaks of the Amphitheater Mountains, the land looking primordial and resplendent with its utter lack of human presence. I reveled in the solitude of the land, in the treeless spread with its distant herds of caribou, in the waterways that cut through the countryside like gleaming arteries in the sunlight, all of it swallowing up notions of time.
This road, too, was not without its hills. I rode over 4,000 feet to Maclaren Summit, Alaska’s second highest pass, which showed an impressive view of the Maclaren River valley far below. I drew in the enormity of the sight, in which the distant Maclaren River Lodge was a tiny dot in the midst of 360 degrees of pure wilderness. After resting for a while, I hopped on my bike to enjoy several miles of blessed descent, my speedometer reading a face-stinging 30 miles an hour. It was a welcome respite, as I had started to feel pain over the tops of each of my now swollen knees with each turn of the crank. I raised my seat as high as it could go, hoping to alleviate some of the strain on my knees, and I decided I’d go easier on the uphill peddling. Still, I had no intention of quitting. I’d imprinted the goal on my brain: the Arctic Ocean or bust.
I stopped for a hot meal at the Maclaren River Lodge. The menu offered an intriguing specialty: Bill’s Meatloaf. Its namesake, Bill Nance, sat at the bar with a friend, hotly debating whether country singer Shania Twain’s blue eye shadow was sexy. Bill had lived at this tiny outpost for 27 of his 39 years of life. He was a living character from a Jack London novel, with his wiry frame and red beard, and a livelihood based exclusively on gold prospecting and fur trapping. “I make a living,” he told me, “but in winter you’ve got to keep yourself busy with hobbies so you won’t go stir-crazy.” He meant winters that got as cold as 70 below and closed the Denali Highway to all vehicles but snowmobiles, the sole means of bringing in provisions.
I didn’t see any women at Maclaren Lodge, which reminded me of one Alaska’s most famous facts: its dearth of womenfolk. There are roughly 1.7 men for every woman in the state, though in rural areas there can be as many as four men for one woman. I’d already heard several stories of husbands loaning out wives to brothers or buddies. I wondered about ‘ole Bill Nance, whether his winter “hobbies” were enough for him.
I pitched my tent across from the lodge, Bill assuring me that the sound of the generator would keep the “critters” away. Fast asleep, I woke in a panic: the earth was shaking violently. My hands fumbled to open the zipper of my tent, and I leapt out to stare into the dim light of early morning. It took me a moment before I realized that I was safely camped on a flat shore, safe from any earthquakes. Less than 40 miles away had been the epicenter of one of Alaska’s strongest earthquakes in recent memory; measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale, it had caused the entire side of a mountain to collapse.
I packed up and began riding again, bouncing over potholes and gravel the size of baseballs. Tour buses passed filled with cruise ship passengers, one announcer referring to me as a “meal on wheels.” Mile 82 brought the Gracious House Lodge, a homey roadhouse carved out of the wilderness overlooking the Susitna River, the only civilization for 50 miles in either direction. Silk rose bushes surrounded the log-cabin restaurant, and gentle, airy music played from loud speakers. I was used to the utter emptiness and silence of the tundra, and in my endorphin haze, the tunes wafted from the mountainside like angelic song. Covered completely in sweat and dust, I got off my bike like a rickety old man, my legs so fatigued that they barely supported me. I entered the restaurant, taken aback by the anachronistic 50s-style diner with its vinyl-covered stools circling a counter, walls covered with Alaskan memorabilia. Most exciting was the homemade apple pie with mountain berry ice cream. I immediately ordered a slice from the owner, Carol Gratias.
“To live out here, you have to do everything yourself,” Carol told me as I ate. “My husband, Butch, is a plumber, a mechanic, a cook, a pilot. He flies tourists in his Cessna for big game hunts.”
“Do you ever leave?” I asked.
“Sometimes we go ‘outside’”—Alaskan for the lower 48 states—“but we never stay away for long. This is home.”
Alaskan storms come quietly, unassumingly, only to unleash a downpour of rage. As I rode northwest of Fairbanks along the Elliot Highway, another of Alaska’s classic mountain biking routes that passes over the White Mountains and ends at the town of Manley Hot Springs, the sky grew dark and a strong wind rattled the yellow birch leaves. All at once, without warning sound or lightning flash, a great deluge struck. The branches of the spruce trees bowed beneath blasts of rain. The clay road turned to slick mud. My bike quivered as I rode, threatening to slip. It took all of my attention and control just to maintain my balance and keep going.
I heard the roar of an approaching pickup truck behind me, the driver honking angrily. As he sped by, my bike slipped and sent me sprawling. I had mud down my shorts, up my shirt, covering my hair, the rain battering down on me. A moose plodded slowly across the road, stopping to give me an easy, almost bemused glance before continuing on. Unhappily for the moose, the most common roadside debris: rifle casings and empty whiskey bottles.
The mind will do all sorts of things to try to divert itself from such unpleasantness, to keep from focusing on the body’s shivering or on the mud beneath one’s contact lens. In my case, it began to scold. This trip was supposed to be enjoyable; I was supposed to be having fun; people envied what I was doing. But even my ability to appreciate Alaska’s stunning beauty had been squelched by my level of physical pain and exhaustion.
I got back on my bike and started pedaling again. The road kept rising until it was above the tree line and following the narrow backbone of the mountains. It was stark, empty country, with rolling green hills falling away on all sides. As there were no sources of water on the mountaintops, I filtered water into my bottles from muddy puddles on the side of the road. As soon as my speedometer told me I’d made my 40 miles for the day, I pulled over and camped on a windswept slope among the blueberries, utterly spent.
The next day, I got my downhills back, whizzing into Manley Hot Springs in record time, the sun out, baking the clay road hard. All I wanted was a day off and a long soak in a hot spring. My knees were smarting worse than ever, and though I had been raised to ignore physical pain, I knew that my body would eventually tell me when enough was enough. Until then, I’d just keep pedaling toward the Arctic.
I spent the day in the town’s famous hot springs, which filled four cement pools inside a large greenhouse owned by Gladys Dart, 81. Unlike me, she had nowhere to go, nothing to prove. She had been a teacher in Manley for most of her life, remembered the days when the town’s children crowded into a one-room school. Now retired, her greenhouse took up most of her time. Inside lay a steaming jungle of blooming hibiscuses and gladioli, ferns and hollyhocks, grapes and a mini-orchard of apple and pear trees bursting with fruit. Mrs. Dart had arranged her plants in such a way that there was always something flowering year-round, even in the sunless dead of winter, though she admitted that some of her tropical varieties “got confused.” Particularly during the coldest months, she liked to come down to bathe in the midst of her blooming jungle, where it was always summer and always warm.
The Dalton Highway. It is known to avid mountain bikers as the Ride of Pain—a true test of mettle for anyone claiming to have biked Alaska. I stared off at it. Before me ran 414 miles of largely unpaved road, ending finally at the town of Deadhorse, near the Arctic Ocean. To get there meant crossing the Brooks Range at Atigun Pass (Alaska’s highest at 4,800 feet, and often snow-covered). It meant riding up hills, monster hills with names like the Beaver Slide and Gobblers Knob, requiring at least three miles of straight climbing to get to the top. It meant days of riding without signs of civilization, and primitive camping in temperatures that averaged in the 30s or 40s during the day and in the single digits at night.
My first day out was a day of freakish heat and long hills with 12 percent grades. I kept my bike on the lowest gear combinations, creeping up one turn of the pedal at a time through large gravel. Built by oil companies, the Dalton is also known as the Haul Road, functioning as the supply route for the drilling facilities located at Prudhoe Bay by the Arctic Ocean. It had been built crudely and cheaply, and consequently had the steepest grades of any road in Alaska. Not to mention that the truck drivers still claimed the road as theirs, shuddering by at 50 miles an hour, leaving dense white dust clouds and dangerous rock showers in their wake.
People in their pickup trucks took pity on me as I pedaled uphill, stopping to fill my water bottles from their own jugs or giving me Gatorade. Accomplishing a mere ten miles on that highway felt like traveling 40. With no pull-outs, I laid my bike on the side of the road to take rest breaks, prompting the driver of every passing vehicle to slow down and ask me if I’d had an accident and needed to go to a hospital. In such a way, I met Matt, who had quit his job as a laboratory animal deliverer to live out his dream: driving from Pennsylvania to Alaska.
“When I saw you, I couldn’t believe you were a girl!” he said to me from his car window. “If you were my daughter or sister or whatever, I’d slap you, I’d say, ‘What are you doing out here without a man or a gun?’”
I was thinking it’d make a nice title to a memoir: Without Man or Gun.
Finally, I reached the wide Yukon River, where I set up camp. It is the Arctic’s version of the Mississippi. Just as wide across, just as formidable, the Yukon acted as a superhighway for would-be prospectors heading into Alaska’s unknown. To this day, it remains part of the Alaskan male’s rite of passage: men crossing it for the first time must piss into the waters. It was here that I heard my first news of another person who had decided to tour the Dalton by bike—a lone Japanese woman who, scared by reports of grizzlies, had gotten a 200-mile lift to the town of Coldfoot, halfway up the highway.
Perhaps I should have taken this news as a warning, but I was more concerned about the state of my knees, as well as all the big, steep hills. First the Beaver Slide, a three-mile-long climb. As I began the slow ascent, my bike in the lowest gear combination, a man in a red pipeline truck saw me and pulled over.
“You going to ride that bike up this hill?” he asked, incredulous.
I stopped, panting. “That’s the plan.”
“Why on earth do you want to do that?”
He offered a lift, but I refused. After pushing my bike for part of the way, I reached the top, entering the foothills of the Brooks Range. The country had altered to dramatic views of rolling hills dotted by caribou herds, the tundra showing the changing autumnal colors of bright red bear berries, orange dwarf birches, and a rainbow of lichen upon the rocks. Mosquitoes were all but gone.
At Mile 115, I reached the Arctic Circle, where I stopped to celebrate with a Vanilla Crisp PowerBar, watching crowds of tourists who had gotten there the easy way: by tour bus. The drivers put down little red rugs with a yellow line draw on them, snapping pictures of people as they “stepped over the Arctic Circle.” Shortly after, I came upon the worst hill of the Dalton, Gobblers Knob, which rose like a small mountain. I rode its last mile to the summit, panting and sweating, my knees screaming in pain. Down below lay the James River Valley and Pump Station 5, a steaming, futuristic maze of metal pipes in the middle of otherwise pristine country. I was making it slowly but surely to the Arctic Ocean—which, given the state of my knees, seemed something of a miracle.
But then it happened, on my fifth day on the Dalton, after crossing the middle fork of the Koyukuk River: My left knee let out a sharp screech of pain and puffed up like a balloon. Something tore. I couldn’t bend my knee. Pedaling was out of the question, and with that realization came a crushing sense of defeat: I had made it almost 800 miles across Alaska, was only four days from my goal, and now this. It seemed like cruel fate.
And then, shortly after, I saw the bear.
I drink a beer at the Trucker’s Café in the town of Coldfoot, my leg elevated on the seat next to me, my knee pulsing with pain. I still see the grizzly in my mind. His curious stares, his single-minded approach. If I had been disappointed about my injury before he came, that disappointment faded to relief after he left, to a mind quieted of all questions. He had granted me the permission I most needed: that I could go home now.
At least Coldfoot provides basic comforts. Hot showers. Cold beer. French fries. A nondescript outpost, home to 30 people living in interlocking trailers on a large dirt parking lot next to a gas station, I’m told it regularly gets as cold as 60 below in the winter. I watch as a pair of male cyclists pull in, bikes overloaded with front and back panniers. They eat and use the bathroom before pedaling on, all business. I resist the urge to talk to them, to ask them where they’re going or where they’ve been.
I decide to at least see the Arctic Ocean, having come this far. I get a lift by car. Each mile takes about a minute and a half in passing. I think of going up the Beaver Slide, how a single mile took an hour. Turns out that Atigen Pass—Alaska’s highest, the one I had feared for most of my trip—would not have been as tough to ride as Gobblers Knob. The summit road is crowded with mountain goats that leap over the guard rails and stare imperiously at us passing motorists. Below, the great Arctic plain opens before me. The horizon curves like a crescent moon beneath the weight of the sky. Such unimaginable space. The car takes me a mile every minute. In a blink: Prudhoe Bay.
You cannot simply ride to the Arctic Ocean, park a bike on its shore, take a dip in its waters. The shore is, in effect, owned by the oil companies. To see the Arctic Ocean costs $37 per person and requires joining a special tour. Before you can get there, your driver’s license must be copied and checked with the police. Then you are shuffled into a conference room and forced to watch a British Petroleum PR video that begins with majestic shots of Native Americans and the Arctic countryside, followed by the oft-repeated mantra, “Concern for the environment is one of our top priorities.” Finally, a smiling, armed security guard ushers you onto a bus; you travel with him along a maze of roads, through a series of checkpoints, past drilling facilities and natural gas installations in the midst of which is an incongruous pond supposedly visited by ornithologists the world over. (“Swans!” our beaming guide tells us. “Loons!”) And finally down a spigot of land which ends at a parking lot: the Arctic Ocean.
We crane our necks to find a view of the sea, the bus’s doors opening to allow us 20 minutes’ visitation time. Everyone unloads in haste, cameras at the ready, clambering down a ridge and onto a rocky shore. Some people take off their shoes to bathe their feet in the water. Others gather souvenir pebbles or snap pictures of each other before the waves—anything to prove that they were here. I sit on the rocks and stare off at gray waters, oil refineries jutting into the sea, the sky dark but for the natural gas flames that rise like beacons of fire over this northernmost edge of the world.
THE WHITE MARY
by Kira Salak
"A gripping debut novel."
Publishers Weekly Pick-of-the-Week
"There aren't many books that we hand to friends, urging,
'You have to read this.' The White Mary is one of them."
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"With The White Mary, journalist Kira Salak makes a stunning
debut as a novelist. This is a story whose beauty and power
sweeps you along, like the jungle rivers that bear her heroine
into the heart of New Guinea in search of a vanished American."
© 2008 Kira Salak, KiraSalak.com--all rights of reproduction in any form reserved