In July/August 2012, I spent 4 weeks cycling across Alaska, starting on the Arctic Ocean and making
my way over the Brooks Range, along the Alaska Range, and down to Anchorage on the Pacific Ocean. It was
my longest solo trip, and probably the physically toughest, although it was a little self-imposed as
I took advantage of the midnight sun to cycle long 12-14 days.
The Arctic Ocean! The thin line of white on the horizon is the ice-cap - Polar Bears swim from it to shore, but not until later in the season. On the right is the general store in Deadhorse, the town on Prudhoe Bay that I flew into, where I picked up my camping fuel and a bear-horn.
Deadhorse. Population: 0. But there are thousands of oil-field workers working 12 hour shifts 2-weeks on and 2-weeks off, mostly in the winter when the oil rigs can be moved around on top of the ice. In summer, it is a spread of abandoned-looking prefabricated buildings across the tundra, perched up or insulated underneath so that they don't melt the permafrost. It was an eerie place to set out from, but friendly to clearly mad tourists. From here, it is 500 miles / 800 kilometers of mostly gravel road to the next store or cell-tower, following the oil pipeline over the North Slope tundra and crossing the Brooks Range and Yukon River. I have 8 days of food strapped to my bike, a tent, and solar panels to keep my music going - deep breath and here I go!
The North Slope is mostly loose soil held together by permafrost. In the summer, the top couple of feet melt and spring to life with bright green plants, stretching a wet, spongy marsh to every horizon. Despite there being no dry land, it is considered a desert as almost no rain falls. The sun stayed with me for this first part of my journey - making laps around the horizon but never setting. The top-left picture is of Caribu, who complete the same 500 mile journey as me each year, and the top-right is a MuskOx, which is one of the largest animals that I didn't know existed.
I made my first camp on a 'Pingo', a hill with an ice-core that pushes up above the surrounding landscape, making it dry enough to pitch a tent. Those black dots, bottom-left, are mosquitoes - the Arctic Tundra has the world's highest concentration of mosquitoes, who come out every summer, perhaps to remind folk that maybe the winters really aren't so bad.
This little guy was circling my gear as I packed down my first camp. When I chased him from my food he gave me a long toothy yawn, showing me enough pointed teeth to make me hesitate for a second, before he casually trotted away, as if to say "if it means that much to you..."
Living through a 5-month winter night every year is pretty much a license to be a badass all summer.
I followed this river for much of the day, which still had some ice-sheets but was mostly fresh melt water. See that dirty puddle two pictures up? I had to get water from there the previous day.
Video Day 2: Seeing the first mountain range on the horizon, as the first rain falls.
It was the middle of the wild-flower season when I set out.
The storms found me and chased me for a few days as I left the North Slope and crossed the foothills leading to the Brooks Range. On the second 'night' I found that my tent was not so water-proof, but I could bunch up the floor to control where the puddles formed.
Video Day3: Hiding from the rain under a tarp while I cook lunch.
Atigun Pass, the Brooks Range. I met my first tourists there since starting out. Eric Muehling lives in Fairbanks and teaches science through multimedia to Alaskan kids, including climate change (bless you, sir). He's also a photographer, and captured this picture of one stubborn cyclist half-way up the pass.
The top of the pass, with the Arctic watershed on the left and the Pacific watershed on the right. It ended up being one of my easier afternoons. The road was a constant gradient up and over the pass, following the contour of the mountains. Through the foothills, the road had followed a straight line close to the oil pipeline (the reason it was built) going up and over every hill in the way. I enjoyed a short breath of fresh air before heading down.
My last camp in the tundra. Inside of my tent - not as scenic, but I did spend a lot of time here.
Video Day 4: Brunch in the sunshine!
Civilization! Almost! And also the first trees for the trip, as I came far enough south and down from the mountains that I finally cleared the permafrost. This is Coldfoot, Alaska, halfway from the start of my trip to Fairbanks. There was no store but there was a restaurant/bar/hotel, where the cook sold me some pasta and a commercial-size tub of pesto. This truck driver had spotted a male Grizzly tracking me when he passed me earlier in the day while I was still coming down out of the mountains. He beeped and I waved, thinking he was being friendly (I was there long enough that I saw some drivers several times) but when I ran into him at ColdFoot he let me know. Kind of glad I was oblivious at the time.
With the first forests and following a river, this was a beautiful stretch for a couple of days, still with 24hr sun.
Video Day 5: A windy lookout - it's almost impossible to hear the audio because of the wind (a head wind) which about sums up this part of the ride.
Left: fishing for Greylin. Brendan, an Inupiaq who worked as a security guard and sometimes-guide at the oilfields in Deadhorse gave me instructions on where to fish, and even a few of his home-made flies. With local know-how and patience, I dangled the line from a home-made willow rod. Right: cooking pasta with pesto.
It made me appreciate how far north I was. I had already come 300 miles / 500 kms, and six days later I was only now crossing south of the Arctic Circle. There were regular tourists from this part south, and even some stretches of paved road, which helped me keep pace as the Dalton started passing through mountains again.
Video Day 6: At finger rock, looking back over the Arctic circle.
I got my first close look at the pipeline I had been following as we both crossed the Yukon River. Smaller than I would have guessed. I took my first break here - half a day - and took the time to make my bike sparkle, but decided my own body was a lost cause.
Video Day 7: At the Mighty Yukon, stopping to make repairs.
An hour later the rain started, and didn't really stop for the next three days. I stayed wet and just rode to around 11pm each day, crashing in my leaking tent before getting up a few hours later to do it all again. It was a tough stretch, with little visibility as I kept pushing forward in the 24hr gloom, but character building. Top-right is the end of the Dalton Hwy, marking my completion of the most northern hwy in the Americas. A day and a half later and I made it to Fairbanks.
Video Day 8: Completing the Dalton Hwy! I filmed the final 50 metres as I came to the end of the America's most northern road.
I took two-days off and had a lot more fun than expected in Fairnamks. The Eskimo-Indian olympics included the blanket-toss (above), the ear-pull, and seal-skinning. I saw the finals of the blanket toss but missed the seal-skinning - I heard it was worth it just to see the looks on kids faces.
Despite being miles out of town in the middle of nowhere, or maybe because of it, Goldstream Sports had amazing bike mechanics. I turned up with both more broken spokes than I had spares, a chain ready to retire, and with both sets of brake pads worn down to metal and not exactly functional. A warm coffee and warmer advice about which routes to take next, while my bike was getting fixed. An hour later and my baby was as good as new and ready to roll, but not before I checked out the late night bar scene - it was more welcoming on the inside.
Video Day 10: This is why you should not let cyclists into your clean hotel.
The roadsides of Alaska had some of the oddest food places - this hotdog caravan was 50 metres into a field, and I think this might be the world's largest and most haunted igloo.
For three days out of Fairbanks, I rode down the Richardson Hwy, which was the first road that ran up this southern half of Alaska, starting in Valdez. It was on a regular tourist circuit, which made for some idyllic official camp grounds on lakes, and some history lessons, as some of the original lodges along the route still stand. I wasn't the first person to cycle through here - that honor belongs to the man in the diagram, who rode the route in 1906, in winter, wearing a dapper hat the whole time if this recreation is accurate. Respect.
Video Day 13: Looking out over the rivers near Delta Junction.
Time to say goodbye to the pipeline that I had been following since I set out more than 1000 kms ago. We were both crossing the Alaska Range, but it was heading south, while I was leaving the nice paved road for the gravel Denali Hwy, trailing the Alaska Range for a week all the way to its highest peak, Mt Mckinley, taking in a few glaciers on the way.
Video Day 14: The clouds lifted at breakfast to give me my first clear view of the Alaska Range, the mountains that I would be riding along for the next week.
The lake, bottom left, was at the top of the pass the first time that I crossed the Alaska Range. At a sweeping point in the road I saw what I think was a bald eagle (anyone?). I reached the turnoff to the Denali Hwy late, but was too excited not to ride. The bottom-right photo was as I rode up the first pass on the Denali Hwy at around 10pm, looking at mountains beyond mountains, the furthest all snow-capped and only mine with so much as a trail.
The Maclaren Glacier, on what I was told was only the third clear day all summer, and the first time I saw the sun hit the horizon. Despite being a gravel road, the Denali Hwy had a few lodges and tourists. I ran into two other solo cyclists at the same time and we rode up towards the glacier together.
Video Day 15: a lodge serving views of the glacier with a smokey ale.
I found a nice campsite this night, in no place in particular.
Video Day 16: The sunshine continued to bless me, as the road came down among trees again.
I tried to fish again when crossing a river, but without luck. The views made up for it, with another day bringing clear views of more mountains and glaciers.
Denali National Park. Having completed the Denali Hwy, I hopped over to the National Park of the same name. This is the most popular park in the Alaskan interior and I had to camp at offical grounds, but they were well planned and never crowded.
I saw more animals in Denali than the rest of the trip combined. The top two are bears with cubs, with moose and caribu at the bottom.
Video Day 19: Walking through the woods in Denali National Park.
Polychrome Pass ... and another pass whose name I forget. Along with the wild-life, I can see why this is such a famous spot - Denali really was very different from valley to valley. The camp at Wonder Lake was a little corner of paradise. You cannot remove rocks from this highly protected area, but the rangers encourage you to eat as many berries as you want. Wild-flower season had given way to berry season during my ride, and I picked this many blue-berries within arm's reach of each other.
Full-moon rising over the range. I was just 20 miles from Mt McKinley, the tallest mountain in the Americas, when it briefly came out from behind the clouds (on the right- partly covered again by the time I took this photo). It was a rare treat - most visitors to the park don't get to see it at all.
Video Day 20: Mt McKinley showing itself after being camped near the base for a day.
Moose in the mist. Not as famous as the gorillas, but they make up for it in attitude.
I rode the last 250 miles / 400 kilometers in just over two days. With the exception of a couple of places like Hurricane Gulch, there was not much to see as I caught heavy rains again, so I decided to see how far I could push myself on a flat smooth road after almost a month of riding over mountains. The photo of me is as I made it to the Pacfic, just outside of Anchorage and having crossed from ocean to ocean.
A few hours later I was in Anchorage, exhausted but with a profound sense of accomplishment. It was my longest solo ride to date and one of the physcially toughest, but probably one of my most personally rewarding.