A small team of Alaskan adventurers undertakes a fat-bike and packraft expedition entirely above the Arctic Circle. Three weeks and 450 miles later, they reach the summit of Alaska, Utqiagvik, (formerly Barrow). Along their journey, the team gathers insights about the effects of anthropogenic climate change, Inupiaq culture, their own strengths and weaknesses, and the remarkable capability of their equipment—the fat-bike and packraft—under extreme conditions.
The sting of pebbles peppering the back of my legs reminded me to be grateful that the wind is at our back. In front of me, my three companions clamp down on their brakes and fight to retain control of their expedition-loaded fat-bikes as a powerful gust slams into us. We are three days into our Arctic expedition, riding over a lichen-encrusted mountain pass in the western Brooks Range when the wind from a nightmare dream begins to blow. The next even more powerful gust flings us from our bikes, and we tumble to the ground like rag dolls.
“This is incredible!” I yell as I heft my loaded bike upright and lean hard into the wind. Wide-eyed smiles and nervous laughter greet my comment.
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 three days, the winds hovered between these two classifications. Simple tasks like adding or removing a jacket require methodical intention. To let go of a strap or sleeping pad, even for a second, means risking it being blown out of reach, most likely never to be seen again.
Kim McNett, Alayne Tetor and Daniel Countiss ride through the mist atop a ridge in the Lisburne Hills in 60 to 80 mile per hour winds.
Over a thousand miles to the south, in my cozy cabin in coastal Alaska, lives a large, shaded relief map of the state. It's a beautiful, well-designed map. It is a centerpiece fixture, a conversation starter, and a debate settler. This map is where many of our trip ideas first take seed.
In the cold, dark month of December, my life-partner Kim McNett and I imagined an extensive, trail-less, fat-bike traverse across the top of Alaska. Staring at the map, our fingers traced previous wilderness cycling trips, some of which have led us north above the latitude of the Arctic Circle. An idea began to take shape, to pick up where we’d left off and attempt a summer fat-bike and packraft trip in the far north.
Starting in the Inupiat village of Point Hope (Tikigaq), we conceived a route through mountains, along coastlines, passing through two villages (Point Lay and Wainwright) and terminating 450 miles later in the northernmost community in the U.S.—Utqiagivk (formerly Barrow), and perhaps beyond. This would be our first fat-bike trip entirely above the Arctic Circle.
Traditional, hand-made sleds and skin boat frames rest on a beach outside of the Inupiaq village of Tikigiaq (Point Hope).
The wind found us in the Lisburne Hills. This series of low elevation mountains are the westernmost extent of the Brooks Range, which reside entirely above the Arctic Circle and dramatically terminate as sheer cliffs and capes into the Chukchi Sea.
The treeless landscape of the western Brooks Range appeared ancient, and it was easy for me to imagine herds of a mammoth, mastodon and steppe bison roaming about, with Paleo-Arctic hunters in pursuit. As we rode over the mountain passes, 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 were able to ride up and over the mountains. For two days we were treated to the best off-trail cycling I’ve ever experienced.
Kim, Alayne, and Daniel ride their fat-bikes over a snowy pass in the Lisburne Hills - the western-most extent of the Brooks Range.
Long distances between villages, and thus resupply points, demand heavy loads. Kim and I and our two traveling companions, Daniel and Alayne, who would join us as far as the first village of Point Lay (Kali), each carried ten days' worth of food as we set out from Point Hope. As a parting gift, our friend Ayagaaq, an Inupiaq hunter, sent us off with traditional native food: dried whitefish, bearded seal jerky, and raw muktuk—whale fat and skin. This rich food has sustained northern people for thousands of years. Our group graciously accepted the food and the added insurance it bought us.
Bowhead whale muktuk - skin and fat - is a staple food of the Circumpolar Inuit and Inupiaq peoples.
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.
Daniel Countiss fords a shallow stream on the shore of the Chukchi Sea.
“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 needed to be 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.
Kim, Alayne, and Daniel make their way up a drainage toward a divide.
Days of painless travel flowed from one to the next as the terrain flattened and our routine settled in. Long hours of beach riding were punctuated with short paddles across deep channels of water, always making time to stop and observe the abundant and varied wildlife.
Kim, Alayne, and Daniel paddle their packrafts around a series of snow-drifted cliffs on the Chukchi Sea.
Through still water on a rare calm morning, I paddled one final forward stroke and let my packraft lazily drift the last few feet to shore. When my bow made contact, I stepped out onto a beach below the village of Point Lay and swatted at the mosquitos buzzing around my head.
As we rode our bikes around and got our bearings, the village seemed energized. Four-wheelers pulled loaded trailers to and fro, kids were outside playing and riding bikes, and many people stood in front of their houses butchering and processing meat. “Welcome to Kali,” (the Inupiaq name for Point Lay) everyone said as we passed. The day before, the community had taken 33 beluga whales and today was Nalukataq—the spring whaling festival—auspicious timing on our part.
People gathered outside the school and into the gymnasium. Inside, tray upon tray of food were being set out for the upcoming feast. Kids flocked to us and our freakish-looking oversized bikes. “Can I try?” they asked. “If my bike can withstand what I just put it through, I don’t see how you can hurt it,” Kim said as she stabilized her bike for an enthusiastic little boy. “Me next. Me next,” came the cacophony.
Curious children excitedly examine the fat-bikes and pepper the team with questions.
Five days of pre-packaged food awaited us at the post office, which we’d sent from home two weeks earlier. As we reorganized the bags on our bikes to make room for the resupply, people from the village stopped to ask questions and offer advice. “Nalukataq is beginning soon. Come eat,” everyone told us.
The Kali whaling captain and other elders are respectfully served first at traditional Inupiaq feasts.
Inside the gymnasium, we sat at one of the school cafeteria lunch tables that had been set up for the feast. Round after round of food was passed out, with elders respectfully being served first. We were treated to a delicious meal of traditional native food—boiled beluga, bird soup, black and white muktuk, fry-bread, and sweets. While eating, we received advice from Doug Rexford, the esteemed whaling captain, and others. Our biggest concern about the route ahead was finding fresh water. On our unrolled map, fingers full of wisdom and local knowledge pointed to our best options.
Inupiaq drummers of Kali (Point Lay) perform ancient songs during Nalukataq - the whale festival.
After the meal and before the dancing began, we were again surrounded by kids. They each, in turn, told us stories of Iñupiat lore, excitedly cutting one another off to tell their version of Silla, the Big Mouth Baby, or The Woman in White. Within these kids were the ancient stories passed down through the millennia. In their capable care, Inupiaq culture is in safekeeping.
“There are two kinds of Arctic problems,” Arctic adventurer Vilhjalmur Stefansson once said, “the imaginary and the real. Of the two, the imaginary is the most real.”
Our imaginations had calmed as we said goodbye to Alayne and Daniel in Point Lay. Polar bears were not hiding behind every rock and what appeared to be the most challenging terrain was behind us. We left the village as a smarter team, armed with local knowledge and a resupply of food; our confidence invigorated.
Kim rides her fat-bike out of Point Lay (Kali) on a compact beach.
Two days later, Kim and I crouched low behind our bikes as a caribou herd steadily marched toward us on a narrow island. Earlier in the trip, we’d similarly encountered a brown bear. In that instance, we were glad that the bear stopped, caught our scent, turned tail, and ran away, but now we hoped for the opposite. A medium-sized bull led the small herd to within a few yards of us. They stopped, sniffed the air, and casually ambled on their way.
A small herd of caribou pass by along the narrow, 120 mile long Kasegaluk Lagoon.
Wildlife encounters permeated our expedition. We were treated to sightings of substantial beluga pods, a bowhead whale, bearded seal, a brown bear, foxes, and rare bird sightings. Eventually, we reached a point in our trip where we no longer excitedly blurted out, “Spectacled eider!” every time we saw a flock. Traveling by human power has enriched my life in a way that money or material wealth could never purchase; the Arctic rewarded us generously.
On the far shore of Wainwright Inlet, we scouted around, looking for the narrowest place to cross the channel. For the first time since the Lisburne Hills we’d been gratefully accompanied by a tailwind. As we prepared to make the final crossing before the village, the wind built, and the skies darkened. Not until everything was strapped onto our small, one-person, inflatable rafts did I grasp how strong it had become. We decided to risk it. Halfway through the crossing, I leaned hard to windward, paddled for everything I had, and regretted our decision.
Kim McNett deflates her packraft, after a distressing crossing, and prepares to fat-bike the remaining miles to the village of Wainwright.
Safely on the other side, I reflected on the idiom, don’t race back to the barn. Many adventurers, hunters, and other cold, hungry, or tired people have made the mistake of disregarding safety as they approach the finish line. Impatience can have terrible consequences. Fortune may favor the bold, but long-life favors the prudent.
A hunter from Wainwright village greets the team and shares some of his caribou meat as well as insights about life in the high Arctic.
“My great uncle used to live in that sod hut,” a Wainwright hunter, with two field-dressed caribou draping over his four-wheeler, told us. He was pointing to a collapsing but intact sod house-site. Since leaving Cape Lisburne, we’d seen several of these traditional huts and had always assumed that it had been hundreds of years since people last inhabited them. There, in Nunagiaq, just north of Wainwright, we listened to stories of this hunter’s family and how life on the North Slope of Alaska used to be not that long ago. Few stories or trail advice are ever as impactful or memorable as those heard on the trail.
Remains of a traditional sod igloo.
In the back of Peard Bay, I attempted to circumvent a short bluff by riding in front through hub-deep water. As I rode, my bike became heavier and heavier from freshly eroded, floating chunks of loose peat, which glommed onto my spokes and drivetrain.
Roughly one-quarter of the land in the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost, and it is thickest in the Arctic. Trapped within permafrost is more than double the amount of carbon already in our atmosphere. As our planet rapidly warms from our wholesale combustion of fossil fuels, the melting of permafrost is accelerating, releasing this trapped carbon into the atmosphere. This is known as a positive feedback loop. The outcome for Alaska, however, will be anything except positive.
Kim McNett rides her fat-bike along a stretch of Arctic Ocean coastline that is rapidly eroding into the sea from anthropogenic climate change.
As I cleaned the peat chunks from my bike, I looked ahead at the rapidly thawing landscape eroding into the sea and wondered how different it would look here in five or ten years…or even next month. I also wondered when Alaska and the rest of the nation would get serious about reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigating climate change. Will we choose to act before reaching a critical tipping point? Again, the saying I’d heard in Wevok came to my mind, “There is no tomorrow.” The time for action is now.
Kim McNett scans the terrain ahead, observing the rapidly eroding coast line.
Past Peard Bay, we knew there was one more obstacle before reaching Utqiagvk—the Skull Cliffs. We rode on until the sand and pebble beach turned to mudstone slabs, and the walls of the cliff steepened above us. Although the elders in Wainwright told us we wouldn’t be able to ride in front, I convinced Kim to keep trying. Waves crashed under our feet as we jumped from one slab to the next and made it around the first headland. Looking ahead at the steep cliffs, with no shore below, we knew it was time to inflate the packrafts.
Kim McNett re-assembles her fat-bike after traversing in front of the Scull Cliffs in her packraft.
That evening, we camped in a beautiful sun-drenched valley, saving the rest of the Skull Cliffs for the morning. As the wind died, the bugs came out, and we discussed our plans. Originally, we had hoped to continue traveling east out of Utqiagvk. We’d begun to reconsider.
Before leaving home, we often looked at the map and wondered how we would approach the vast terrain—full of long bays, massive lakes, and wet tundra—between Utqiagvk and Prudhoe Bay. This stretch would be the longest between resupply of the whole route and so far no one had offered any reassuring advice. “Maybe better for you in the spring, when there’s still snow, and the lakes are frozen,” we heard more than once.
As we tightened the mosquito netting under our shelter and prepared to tuck in for the night, we resigned ourselves to a decision. The summit of Alaska, Utqiagvk, would be the end of our route…for now.
A baby seal wakes from a nap along the shore of the Arctic Ocean.
Over the last ten years, the fat-bike and packraft have rapidly evolved in form and functionality. Both instruments of human-powered wilderness exploration were originally conceived and developed in Alaska, but the efficiency and practicality of both have caught the imagination of people worldwide. What can be done with a fat-bike in conjunction with a lightweight, one-person packraft is still being discovered.
Kim McNett rides her fat-bike over a divide on her way back to the smooth beach along the Chukchi Sea.
On past wilderness trips with the bike, I have been happy when we were able to ride anything more than half of the distance. On this trip, however, we were able to pedal more than 90% of the route. And often, the riding was delightful and engaging.
Kim and I cheered pizza slices together in the first restaurant we stumbled across in Utqiagvk and continued to eat the whole pie like there was no tomorrow.
Bjørn Olson and Kim McNett stand in front of bowhead whale jawbones in Arctic Alaska.
Biography: Bjørn Olson is a lifelong Alaskan and a wilderness adventurer. Over the last 15 years, he has devoted a large part of his energy to exploring as much of Alaska by fat-bike and packraft as means allow. He was inspired at an early age by Roman Dial and Rodger Cowell’s extreme cycling exploits. Some of Olson’s "firsts" with the fat-bike include: Down the Kuskokwim River from Stony River to Bethel; Homer to Seldovia with fat-bike and packraft; Hope to Homer with fat-bike and packraft; Williamsport (Cook Inlet) to Bristol Bay with fat-bike and packraft; Homer to Port Graham with fat-bike and packraft; Knik to Kotzebue; Nome to Kivalina with fat-bike; Point hope to Utqiagvik (Barrow) with fat-bike and packraft; Nome to Nome via the Imurik Basin with fat-bike and packraft; Kotzebue to Selawik with fat-bike; Deadhorse to Utqiagvik (incomplete) with fat-bike; Kotzebue to Point Hope with fat-bike and packraft.
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