Ice Bikers Follow Frozen Trail of Gold Rush

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 14, 2003

During the long, cold winter the wilderness of Alaska and the Yukon is typically dog-sled country. It's also bush-plane country, snow-machine country, and snowshoe country. One thing it is not, at least not usually, is bicycle country. Yet as the northern spring approaches, the "Bikes on Ice" adventure is re-enacting two amazing cycling feats from the region's hectic gold rush past.

Three expert cyclists with extensive arctic travel experience, Andy Sterns, Frank Wolf, and Kevin Vallely, are currently in the midst of a demanding adventure they've dubbed "Bikes on Ice." Wolf, a writer, and Vallely, an architect, are both from Vancouver, British Columbia. Sterns is a teacher from Fairbanks, Alaska. Their mission: complete a 1,200-mile journey down the frozen Yukon River and up the Bering Sea coast from Dawson, Yukon to Nome, Alaska—on a bicycle.

As crazy as the idea may seem, it's not exactly original. The group was inspired by a pair of century-old bicycling feats that became a colorful part of gold rush legend.

On the Trail of Gold Rush "Stampeders"

In 1900 the Dawson-Yukon route was part of the stampede trail&3151;a well-traveled path plied by hopeful prospectors seeking their fortunes in northern gold. The route was traveled primarily by dog sled, but even back then two determined adventurers had other ideas.

Max Hirschberg, a roadhouse manager and expert cyclist, spent two and a half months cycling the route in the dead of winter. That same year Ed Jesson, a young miner, pedaled the frozen Yukon River on two wheels, riding an almost unbelievable one thousand miles in five weeks. The men's journals became unique chronicles of gold rush history and an inspiration to the team hoping to follow in their footsteps.

The path they're traveling, however, has changed a lot in the century since the heydays of the gold rush.

In 1900 basic "roadhouse" shelters were located along the trail at regular intervals. The popular route was usually negotiated by dog sled.

Now, only widely scattered native communities remain along the barren trail, tiny outposts that are shadows of what they were in the booming days of the long-ago gold rush

Guests Arrive Rarely in the Frozen North

The sleepy locales on the trail rarely see visitors and exist in considerable isolation. They have some surprises in store, however, such as satellite Internet hookups which provide a link to the outside world and allow them to file occasional dispatches on the expedition website www.bikesonice.com.

Such a hookup enabled Kevin Vallely to check in with National Geographic News from Eagle, Alaska (pop. 170), where he and the team were warmly received.

Continued on Next Page >>


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