Ice Bikers Complete Expedition Down Frozen Yukon

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 9, 2003
The "Bikes on Ice" expedition, a nearly 1,400-mile (2,250-kilometer)
bicycle trek along the frozen Yukon River and Bering Sea coast from the
Yukon to Alaska, has ended successfully. The finish came just in the
nick of time, ahead of the encroaching spring thaw.

"As we were riding into Nome, we could see sea ice breaking up off to our left. The locals had seen it happening for some time," said Kevin Vallely, 38, an architect and adventure athlete from North Vancouver, Canada. "A week later, I'm sure it would have been inaccessible."

Vallely was joined on his quest by Andy Sterns, 37, of Fairbanks, Alaska, and Frank Wolf, 32, of North Vancouver, British Columbia. The three expert cyclists, who have extensive arctic travel experience, undertook the adventure to recreate two historic cycling feats from the gold rush past. The trio completed their 49-day journey late last month.

In 1900, the Dawson-Yukon route was part of the Stampede Trail—a well-traveled path plied by hopeful prospectors seeking their fortunes in northern gold. While the route was traveled primarily by dogsled, two determined, early 20th-century adventurers had other ideas.

Max Hirschberg, a roadhouse manager and cyclist, spent two-and-a-half months pedaling the route in the dead of winter. That same year, a young miner named Ed Jesson pedaled the frozen Yukon River, riding an astonishing 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) in five weeks. The men's journals became unique chronicles of gold rush history and inspired Vallely and his present-day partners to follow in their trail.

"We liked the idea of seeing if it was possible to do this trip these days—and it was," said Vallely. "One old guy we met was on the ice with his grandson and he started telling us how his grandmother distinctly remembered these guys riding their bikes. That really struck us," Vallely said. "A number of people along the way had heard that story coming on down the line, from their grandparents. The local people know the story as part of Alaskan folklore."

Arctic Change

Following the tracks of their gold rush-era predecessors, the cyclists had ample opportunity to reflect on the changes the past century has brought to the northern region.

"What struck us most was the fact that it's gotten more remote," Vallely explained. "We carried both [cyclist's] diaries and read them throughout. They had so many people traveling ahead of them, thousands of people. They had regular roadhouses on the route, warm beds and food. Now, some of the communities they visited have disappeared, and others are tiny compared to what they used to be. In a world where populations are expanding, this area is losing population."

The expedition team encountered remote northern communities that maintained time-honored traditions while embracing modern conveniences. In the remote community of Shaktoolik, located on a small spit of land on the Alaskan coast separating Norton Sound and the Bering Sea, the cyclists arrived just hours after an important annual celebration. "We just missed them bringing in the first beluga [whale] of the year," Vallely said. "They hunt them there. It's so unique that it kind of hits you like 'Wow, this is where we are.'"

"The government made a financial commitment to keep dozens of these tiny Alaskan communities linked with satellite internet technology, and pays millions a year to keep them linked," Vallely said. "You can come into these communities of maybe 50 people and hop on an iMac [Apple computer]. I'm talking to the entire outside world yet look out the window and see them butchering a Beluga whale."

Race Against Spring

Rapidly changing weather was a constant concern for the cyclists. For much of their journey, the trio battled frigid temperatures that rarely reached 0° Fahrenheit (minus 17° Celsius) and dropped at night to minus 40° Fahrenheit (minus 40° Celsius). Near the end of their journey, however, the team experienced just the opposite problem. Temperatures reached 45° to 50° Fahrenheit (7° to 10° Celsius), threatening river and coastal sea ice.

"It was sometimes so warm you could honestly be in a t-shirt, with the sun reflecting off the snow," said Vallely.

Rain also posed problems. At times trails across river and sea ice were transformed into shin-deep slush which forced the team to dismount and push their bicycles. Their pace slowed from 30 to 50 miles (50 to 80 kilometers) a day to 15 miles (24 kilometers) a day.

Rising temperatures created not only drudgery but also danger. River ice began to break up, creating open water areas and overflow, which made progress difficult and treacherous.

Despite the challenges, the team estimates that they pedaled three-fourths of the route, while walking and pushing their gear-laden bicycles only 25 percent of the time.

The onset of spring also brought the emergence of the region's dominant animal inhabitant—the grizzly. "We started seeing big, fresh grizzly prints and we were shaking our heads and saying, 'It's spring I guess,'" said Vallely.

Reflecting on his own modern-day adventure and that of his gold rush-era predecessors, Vallely noted their fundamental differences. "They were living an adventure. So they did something like this out of necessity," he said. "They didn't need to go in search of adventure."

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