Fat-biking through fierce winds, from Point Hope to Utqiagvik

By Bjorn Olson - August 1, 2017
Photo by Bjørn Olson Kim McNett rushes through a narrow passage between the sea and the rock strewn and icy shoreline, near Cape Beaufort. (Bjørn Olson)
Photo by Bjørn Olson
Kim McNett rushes through a narrow passage between the sea and the rock strewn and icy shoreline, near Cape Beaufort. (Bjørn Olson)

Before the summer solstice, myself, along with my partner Kim McNett and our two friends Daniel Countiss and Alayne Tetor flew from Anchorage to the Arctic village of Point Hope. Our goal was to fat-bike to the community of Utqiagvk, and beyond, if possible. Below are journal entries from July.

POINT LAY — We made it here just in time for Nalukataq — the spring whaling festival. The village has been busy for days: first herding belugas, then hunting, butchering, and now sharing in a massive feast.

Although our mode of travel is uncommon, we’ve been graciously welcomed by the whaling captain and have eaten our fill. What a gift to be here for such an important festival. Dancing and drumming is still going on, but the blanket toss blanket ripped.

This stretch of the trip from Point Hope has been the most strenuous and rewarding of a life full of adventures. It began with an amazing welcome in Point Hope by our friend Ayagaaq-Joseph M. Gallahorn Sr., who provided us with rich Native food for our journey and many good stories.

When we finally got underway, my heart sank a little as our tires ground to a crawl on the un-compacted beach pebbles. Conditions were no better on the tundra. ‘What if it never gets better?’ I secretly thought. It did get better, but it never got easy.

Our next big challenge was the storm that blew for days and nearly shredded our shelters. We traversed the beautiful and amazing Lisburne Hills in what felt like a never-ceasing windstorm. Sixty mph gusts would often catch us off guard and at various times all of us were thrown from and over our bikes. We were, however, able to ride much of the overland route and the wind often boosted us up and over divides,  a blessing and a curse. Unlike some bike adventures we’ve had, the bikes are an actual asset.

Technical difficulties with an inexplicably draining battery in our InReach tracking/texting device provided the next gulp of uncertainty. We came out of the hills east of Cape Lisburne, 40 miles northeast of Point Hope along the Chukchi Sea coast, and the Air Force radar site of Wevok, some 3 miles west of Cape Lisburne. We knew our only chance to recharge our lifeline was to detour to the station.

Due to the persistent winds, our next hurdle was traversing shorelines with adjacent hills or bluffs. Winter snow drifts accumulate into massive glacier-looking faces of compact snow right to the waters edge, running on for miles or as far as our eyes could see. If there had been no swell we could have snuck in front — later we did just that — but in the beginning, this was impossible. The silver lining, in this instance, was that we were able to ride our bikes up a creek near to the top of a divide, push a little and then ride our bikes all the way down another drainage. Pure fat-bike bliss. Then came long hours in the pack raft.

Kim wrote: “I am in awe of the beauty of the Arctic and many images will forever be a place to return to in my mind: the tiny but brilliant flowers dotting the open hillsides, a herd of 100 belugas splashing just offshore, finding the footprints of ancient sod igloos, and traversing beaches covered in giant whale bones.”

During our stop at Wevok, our friend and companion Daniel Countiss caught a virus. The going was hard on all of us but as his condition worsened, his suffering outstripped our own. The typical good-natured, fun-loving, and unshakable Daniel was no longer having any fun.

As we pulled farther away from the hilly country, the beaches opened up, the snow faded into our rear-view, and we began riding more or less in earnest. Beach riding fluctuated between firm and fast to an unconsolidated mess that sometimes seems impossible to ride.

A headwind in soft pea-gravel, just outside Point Lay, mixed with my sore knee and Daniel’s illness ground us down. We took an afternoon siesta in the hopes that at least the wind would come down. It didn’t, so at 9 p.m. we forged on, saving the water crossing to the village for the morning.

I have often felt uncertain on trips but never as strong or as often as on this last stretch. A little sliver opens up every now and again when things are hard and the reality of how far out we are sinks in. I have also felt bliss on trips but few experiences compare to the overwhelming vistas, light, wildlife encounters, and sensations I have had between here and Point Hope. Much like receiving a tattoo, I feel as if I have been etched by this Arctic landscape.

The nephew of one of our party, Alayne Tetor, was born while we were pedaling — on Alayne’s birthday no less. Good magic. She is on her way to meet him now. Daniel has returned home to recover, and McNett and I will carry on.

There is a spit of land that connects from here all the way to Wainwright and a beach that keeps on going all the way to Utqiaġvik (Barrow). Our future insecurities are being able to find sweet water in this low land region but we have met many well-traveled people who have provided us advice.

After 10 more days of travel and three-days spent in Wainwright — waiting for the post office to open to retrieve our food resupply — Kim and I wheeled into Utqiagvik. Local knowledge has led us to believe that high summer is not the best time to continue east, at least by fat-bike. Perhaps in spring, when there is still snow and the lakes are frozen? We’ll see.

Bjorn Olson is a Homer-based freelance writer and videographer who regularly makes adventurous fat-bike trips across Alaska. Find updates on Olson’s Facebook page