A Family Odyssey to the End of the World
by Nancy Sathre-Vogel
When Bears Don’t Read the Guide Books
Only moments ago, the 400 pound black bear had been standing a mere four feet from my side. Now I stood, rooted in place, and watched it chase my ten-year-old son down the road.
“Go, baby!” I shouted. “Pedal!”
Davy pumped with all he had, knowing full well his very life depended on it.
It had been a long day on the road in northern British Columbia. After cycling sixty miles, we were tired and looking for a suitable spot for our tent. My husband and other son, on a tandem bike, were a mile or two ahead of Davy and me as we pedaled wearily on our heavily-laden bikes.
“Look!” I cried. “A bear! Up ahead! See him grazing in the ditch?”
“Wow!” Davy murmured in wonder. “He’s huge.”
Bears, in general, are afraid of humans and do their best to stay away. As we traveled through the Yukon and British Columbia we had grown accustomed to seeing bears grazing quietly in the ditch on the side of the road.
Motorists frequently left the safety of their vehicles to get better photos of the bears. I often marveled at how close people got to the animals, and yet the bears seemed uninterested in them. Motorists, however, had the safety of their vehicles to retreat to. As bicyclists, we had no cover at all. I vowed to stay well away from any wild animal I encountered.
Davy and I pulled to the opposite side of the road and stopped a respectable distance away – I had a good telephoto lens and had no need to get close. I had just pulled the camera out of my handlebar bag when the bear came up to the road and lumbered toward us. We froze.
“Holy Mother of God!” I exclaimed quietly. “He’s coming this way. Bears aren’t supposed to come toward people.” Davy and I stood quietly, not quite sure what our reaction should be to the fact that a massive bear was drawing near.
A few minutes later, the bear turned and headed back down into the ditch thirty feet away, apparently unconcerned with our presence. Our hearts resumed beating and we began breathing once again. I stashed my camera and we readied ourselves to take off.
Suddenly, out of the blue, the bear leapt onto the road right beside us. My heart skipped a beat or two as I struggled to maintain my composure.
“It’s okay, Mr. Bear,” I said calmly and quietly as the massive beast plodded to within four feet of my side. “We’re just leaving. It’s okay.”
I gazed into his cold, black, glassy eyes. Blades of grass stuck out on either side of his grizzled face. I panicked as my mind replayed all I had read. “Stay calm and talk quietly to the bear as you slowly back away,” the books had said. The problem was that I was straddled on my bike and couldn’t back away.
The bear ambled toward the trailer I hauled behind my bicycle, where I carried all our food, and sniffed. I had no way of knowing how hungry he might be. He came back to stand by my side.
Mr. Bear and I stood staring at each other for nearly a full minute while my mind played through every book and pamphlet I had ever read about what to do in a close encounter with a bear.
The first thing they all mentioned was to remain calm, which was much easier said than done.
The second recommendation was to talk to the bear. That I could do. “It’s okay, Mr. Bear,” I said. “We’re just leaving. We mean you no harm – no harm at all. We’re just passing through and are more than happy to give your territory back….”
Thirdly, they said to back away slowly. Never run as that would provoke a chase; never turn your back as that will provoke an attack. The trouble was that I couldn’t back away. If I backed up, I would jackknife my trailer. If I moved forward, I would put my back to the bear. I couldn’t go sideways because… well, bikes don’t go sideways.
I was stuck. With each passing second, I became more and more certain I would soon meet my maker. It wouldn’t be long before the bits of grass hanging from the bear’s mouth would be replaced with bits of Nancy.
I was doomed, but Davy was far enough away to have a chance. He stood, twenty feet away, straddling his bike and looking back at me.
“Davy,” I said quietly. “Ride away slowly, honey. Just start pedaling very slowly and ride away. Please, sweetie.”
Davy stood his ground, unwilling to leave me.
“Honey, go!” I pleaded. “Please!” It was bad enough that he was about to lose his mother. He didn’t need to watch me being mauled as well.
My son hesitantly turned around, put his feet on his pedals, and began pedaling slowly. The bear followed.
“Go, Davy, go!” I shouted. “Fast!”
Davy quickly gained speed as he pedaled furiously.
For a split second, I pondered my options. On the one hand, I was relieved; I no longer had a bear standing by my side. On the other hand, that very same bear was now chasing my ten-year-old son down the road.
With every motherly instinct within me, I jumped onto my pedals and shifted into my highest gear and my adrenaline-fueled legs quickly brought my bike up to heretofore unknown speeds. I blasted past the bear and caught up to Davy.
“Keep going!” I urged as the bear chased us. “Pedal, sweetie! Keep going!”
I can’t say how fast we traveled, but I do know that bears can run up to thirty-five miles per hour. Our legs pumped, our hearts pounded, and our breath came in raw, jagged gasps. We watched in our rear-view mirrors as the bear fell farther and farther behind.
“Mom, I think we’re safe now,” Davy said when it had become obvious the bear would not be able to catch us.
“Not yet, sweetie,” I panted. “Not yet. Keep going.”
The bear was a tiny black speck in the distance before I could bring myself to hit my brakes. Davy and I ground to a stop in the middle of the Alaska Highway and reached out to cling to one another.
As we trembled and shook, and our heart rates slowly returned to normal, the only thing I could think of to say was, “We did it, baby. We did it.”
Crazy is Not Necessarily a Bad Thing
“You’re crazy,” one of my high school students told me one day shortly before we set off. “I call you my crazy teacher.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because nobody actually does what you’re doing!” she replied. “I mean – people talk about riding a bike around the world, but nobody actually does it!”
I supposed she was right – we weren’t exactly choosing a well-worn path through life. Most people chose to live in a house with a yard and a bunch of cars in the driveway, but we decided to go our own way. We sold or stored nearly every physical possession we owned and reduced our belongings down to what would fit on three bicycles. Three bicycles’ worth of stuff for the next three years. I wondered if maybe we were crazy after all.
But as I stood there on the shores of the Arctic Ocean and looked ahead at the road that would take us southward, I couldn’t help but feel they were the crazy ones. The journey ahead could only be magical – how could it not be when the four of us were together exploring our planet? Yes, we would struggle over passes and collapse into bed at the end of many long days on the road, but we would be living. Truly living. Was that really crazy?
Yet I still had to consider the fact that my husband, John, and I were about to attempt a feat that had never been done – bike the Alaskan Dalton Highway with ten-year-old twins. Originally built in the 1970s as a supply road for the oil fields on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, the Dalton Highway had long been known as one of the most challenging bicycle routes in the nation due to its rough conditions and sheer remoteness. It would be many miles of nothing more than dirt track meandering through pristine Alaskan territory. Maybe there was a reason it had never been tackled with kids. Maybe we should get back on the plane and leave it that way.
My mind went back to that look in my sons’ faces – that look of sheer determination and excitement when they talked about the journey. They were determined – resolute in their desire to cycle from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina. I owed it to them to at least allow them to try. If we failed, we would fail trying.
My mind wandered to the day our journey began two years earlier. That beautiful spring day, John slumped into our house after a particularly rough day in the classroom and collapsed into his favorite chair by the window.
“Nancy,” he said, “I don’t want this anymore. I can’t do it. I need to get away. Let’s quit our jobs and take off on bikes.”
My response was your stereotypical mom response. “Are you crazy? Have you lost your bloody mind? We are parents, dear husband! We have children! Parents – with children – don’t just quit their jobs and take off on bikes.”
We were living the American Dream. We had a big house in the suburbs and two cars in the driveway. We had stable teaching jobs and paychecks coming in every month. And he wanted to throw it all away for bicycles?
As time marched on, John kept talking about that dream of his and I realized I needed to take him seriously. An amazing thing happened: I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I was the crazy one, not John.
I woke up early and dropped the kids off at before-school daycare before spending all day with other people’s kids. After school I picked up my sons, fixed a quick dinner, took them to soccer practice, washed the dishes, threw the clothes in the washing machine, and collapsed into bed exhausted. I never questioned that because… well, I was a parent, and that was what parents did. And I thought he was the crazy one?
Two months later, once school was out for the year, we hit the road. John and the boys rode a bicycle-built-for-three; I was on a single bike. Everything we needed – tent, sleeping bags, stove and cooking pot, clothes, and homeschooling supplies were lashed, strapped, or buckled to the bikes. We spent the next twelve months cycling around the USA and Mexico, and our sons spent their third grade year in the school of life.
While cycling the Pacific Coast, we had met other cyclists on their way to Argentina. “Let’s go, Nancy!” John begged. “Let’s just keep pedaling south!”
As tempting as it was at the time, we simply weren’t prepared for a journey of that magnitude. We had abandoned our house – we could do that for a year but not for three. We hadn’t organized our finances. And our triple bike was an awesome machine for North America, but it wasn’t the bike for the Andes. We continued on with our North American tour and set our sights on the Pan American Highway in the future.
Now we were there.
Our year on the road was twelve months of magic. All four of us learned more than we previously thought humanly possible. By the time we headed back home we had pedaled 9300 miles and knew we wanted more. Much more.
As a family we made the decision to cycle from Alaska to Argentina during the boys’ fifth, sixth, and seventh grade years, and set about preparing for a much longer tour than any of us had ever attempted. It would be more than twice as long as the thirteen months John and I spent cycling in Asia before we were married. We knew it would be three years through extreme conditions, but the background preparation threatened to overtake us and derail the project before we even got on the road.
John and I became single-mindedly focused on making the Pan American journey happen, and spent every day working out tiny details. Our to-do list grew longer by the day – could we pull this off in a year? Remodel the house for renters, dismantle the boys’ treehouse, create a website and look for sponsors, and research how to manage and access our money from remote corners of the world. Figure out how to ship the bikes and gear to the northern end of the world. Get everything we owned sorted into three piles – “sell,” “store,” or “take with.”
It was a whirlwind of activity, but each piece of the puzzle was critical. We couldn’t – simply couldn’t – take our boys up to Alaska and not be prepared. No detail was too small; nothing could be overlooked. Every piece of gear we would carry was essential.
One evening we took a break. All four of us sat in the living room just to be together. The chaos of the preceding months had taken a toll on us all and we needed to stop – even if only for a few hours. “You guys will probably be the youngest people ever to cycle all the way from Alaska to Argentina,” I mentioned. “You’re pretty special!”
“Maybe we’ll get in the Guinness Book of World Records!” Daryl said hopefully as he held up the record book he had been reading.
“I’m sure you could,” John confirmed.
“What do you think?” I asked. “Do you want me to contact Guinness and see what would need to be done?”
Grins broke out simultaneously on both boys’ faces. “Yeah!” they cried.
A few weeks later we had our answer: the record started in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean rather than Fairbanks, where we had intended to begin our journey. If our sons wanted to break the record, they would have to cycle the Dalton Highway. Davy and Daryl would be the first children to attempt it – if they did. I wasn’t convinced it was worth it. We held another family meeting.
“Here’s the deal, guys,” I explained. “The record starts way up north in Prudhoe Bay. We’re planning to start in Fairbanks five hundred miles south of there. If you really, really want to go for the record, we’ll go to Prudhoe Bay, but you need to understand how hard it is.”
“Five hundred miles? We can do that, Mom,” Davy interrupted.
“You need to know that it’s 350 miles of dirt road, and when it rains the road turns to soup. It’ll be much, much tougher than anything else you’ve ever done. And you need to know we most likely won’t make it through – lots of cyclists way stronger than us have been beaten by the Dalton.”
“Let’s do it!” they both agreed. “We can make it!”
That night as I lay in bed trying to sleep, my mind went wild. All along I had figured the trip wouldn’t be all that arduous – we could simply hitch through the difficult parts. But now, if the boys were to make a serious attempt at the world record, that would not be an option. No matter how hard, no matter what kind of obstacles lay in our way, we would be committed to pedal over them.
I wasn’t worried about John – he was as strong as a bear. I didn’t worry about the kids – they had an unending supply of energy and could do whatever they put their minds to.
But me? I didn’t trust my own abilities. Could I really cycle all the way from the Arctic Ocean to Tierra del Fuego? Did I want to? I had always been the weak link in our family. I was the one who tended to give up when things got tough. Rather than having legs of rock-solid muscle like John and the boys, my legs resembled jelly. The extra forty pounds I was carrying around wouldn’t help matters either.
I played back our conversation of earlier that day in my mind. I saw the fierce determination in my sons’ faces; I heard the excitement in their voices. How could I take that dream away from them? I was Mom – I was supposed to be the one who encouraged and supported her children as they reached for their dreams. And here I was considering taking the dream away before it even started. Could I do that to them?
“What would you do if you were not afraid?” I asked myself as I lay in bed that night. “If you weren’t afraid of what people would say about you, or of the unknown, or of failure, what would you do?”
If I answered myself honestly, I had to say I would ride my bike from Alaska to Argentina.
The trouble was that I was afraid. Very afraid. Terrified, in fact. I was terrified of the 15,000-foot passes. I was afraid of battling headwinds for thousands of miles along the Peruvian coast. I was afraid the cold would be too cold and the hot would be too hot.
In short, I was afraid of failure. I didn’t want to face the agony of defeat or the humiliation of having to say I had failed in what I set out to accomplish.
It was about four in the morning when that EUREKA moment happened. At that moment I realized that we had a 50/50 chance of failure. The way I figured it, a 50% chance of failure also meant a 50% chance of success.
If we never set out in the first place, we were looking at a 100% chance of failing.
By morning I had made my decision – I would do it. The four of us would pedal every mile between Prudhoe Bay and Ushuaia together. I had no idea if it was physically possible for me, but I was determined I would give it everything I had. If we failed, we would fail trying.
A few months later our lives had been reduced to eight boxes consisting of three bikes, two trailers, and three bins filled with everything we would need for the next three years. We were excited. We were determined. We were unstoppable – until we got to the airport.
“You want to take all this with you?” the agent said as her eyes widened in surprise. “All of it?”
“Yep,” John replied. “We do.”
“We’re going to break the world record,” Davy explained. “All this stuff is everything we’ll need to ride our bikes from Alaska to Argentina.”
The ticket agent began to calculate the excess baggage charges.
“I’m sorry,” she said a few minutes later. “You will be flying three different airlines, so I have to charge you for each of them. The total comes to $1800.”
Eighteen hundred dollars?
“We can’t do it, Nancy,” John said. “There’s no way. We can’t afford $1800. Let’s just start from here. Let’s throw away the plane tickets and ride south from Boise.”
“Please,” Daryl pleaded. “Please Daddy, let’s go to Alaska.” Tears slowly rolled down his cheeks.
“I want to go to Alaska,” Davy added. “Can’t we? Please? Our goal is to ride from Alaska to Argentina – not Boise to Argentina.”
John and I looked at each other and knew we couldn’t kill their dreams before we even started. I pulled out the credit card.
We were on our way – on our way to the adventure of a lifetime.
A Little Bike Ride Down the Dalton
Dalton Highway, Alaska
One year nearly to the day after our journey around the US and Mexico finished, I surveyed the enormous pile of gear strewn about our feet in the warehouse of the Arctic Caribou Inn in Prudhoe Bay. I wondered, once again, if we had planned well enough. Adequate rain gear? Check. Appropriate warm clothing? Check. Tent, sleeping bags, and stove? Check, check, check. Sufficient food? Maybe check. We had planned the best we could. Now, only time would tell if we had done it well enough.
“For the record,” an oil worker said as he picked his way through our piles, “I drive this road on a regular basis, and I think you’re nuts.”
“I think you may be right,” I retorted as I glanced out the window at the road we were about to tackle.
John and I, along with our sons Davy and Daryl, had arrived in Prudhoe Bay the day before. Now, the boys were out throwing rocks at icebergs floating in the nearby lake while John and I attempted to sort our massive piles of gear.
In the next few hours we piled our gear and more than fifty pounds of food on our bikes. We were about to pedal from the northernmost terminus of the Pan-American Highway on the shores of the Arctic Ocean to Fairbanks, five hundred miles away. And beyond that? We would keep our bike tires pointed south until we could go no farther at the southern tip of South America. At least that was the plan.
Even after so many months of planning, preparing, stewing, fretting, and organizing, I wondered if we would actually make it. Could we actually make it? The odds were against us. How many ten-year-old kids had ever cycled the Dalton? None. The Alaska Highway? None. The Pan American? None. We were drawing blanks as far as examples to lean on. We would have to be our own example.
At long last, all three bikes were put together, racks and panniers (saddle bags for a bicycle) mounted, trailers attached, and gear stashed. John and Daryl had the tent, sleeping bags, and tools packed on their bicycle built for two. Davy had pillows and sleeping mats on his tiny single bike. I carried food for the four of us on mine. The time had come.
“You’d better take off now,” the manager of the Arctic Caribou Inn urged. “Take advantage of this weather; there’s no way it’ll hold up here.”
“You ready, kids? Ready to start riding the longest road in the world?”
“You bet!” Davy exclaimed.
“Sure!” Daryl added. “Let’s go!”
The sun shone brightly and a clear blue sky stretched forever. Temps hovered around the 60’s. In short, it was perfect; we couldn’t ask for better. John and Daryl hopped aboard their tandem bike, Davy and I straddled our singles, and we were off – off to the other end of the world!
Spirits were high as we pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward the Dalton Highway. We were doing it! Finally! Daryl was thrilled to be on the bike with Daddy. Davy was filled with pride at being entrusted with his own bike, but that all came crashing down the moment he hit the gravel. Davy’s bike, unwieldy and unfamiliar with panniers and dry bags lashed on, had slipped out from under him the minute he hit the loose gravel of the Dalton. I jumped off my bike and scurried over to help him.
“It just… just… went!” Davy exclaimed on the verge of tears. “It’s like it’s not even my bike. It just feels too weird and I can’t control it.”
And we still had 17,000 miles to go.
In time, Davy got used to the feel of his loaded bike, and we continued cautiously on our way. We reached the gate to the oil fields – as far north as we were allowed to go. We snapped a photo to document the moment for Guinness World Records and asked the guard to sign our witness book before pushing on.
A mile later we passed a road sign informing us we had 240 miles to go before we would reach Coldfoot, which was nothing more than a gas station and restaurant on the side of the road, and 494 miles to Fairbanks. Many miles of nothing. No grocery store. No convenience store. No houses. Just mile after mile of caribou, musk ox, bears, and moose. Mile after mile of rough arctic grasses swaying in the wind.
In the land of the midnight sun, we pedaled until we tired. The sun was still high in the sky when we pitched our tent on the side of the road – the sun wouldn’t set for another month or so. We were well north of the Arctic Circle, that imaginary line around the globe marking the place where the sun would at least dip beneath the horizon every single day of the year. Here, three hundred miles north of that line, there was no difference between 2:00 in the afternoon and 2:00 in the morning.
Using water from a nearby stream, we cooked pasta over our tiny camp stove, and then filtered water to fill our bottles. We were totally self-sufficient out there. We had to be self-sufficient. There was absolutely no one to rely on but ourselves.
Our sons pulled out their tiny stash of toys – a handful of plastic Star War figures – from Davy’s handlebar bag, and sat next to the stream playing. Those few toys were their only connection to the life we had just abandoned.
As I lay in the tent that was just barely big enough for the four of us, snuggled into my sleeping bag under the bright light of the sun, I thought about our journey. Daryl rolled over and slung his arm over my chest and I gazed into his sleeping face. My baby – but he wasn’t much of a baby anymore. Were we really doing the best thing for the boys? Would they be better off in a classroom in their local school? Was a journey to the ends of the earth a better education? Yes, this life was different from the life of their peers, but was it better? Worse?
Over the next two years, those doubts plagued me repeatedly as we slowly made our way southward. In time I came to the conclusion that our sons’ lives were different from the norm – not better or worse. But at the time, so new to the road and in one of the most remote areas on our planet, I wasn’t quite there yet. I spent the night wondering what might happen. All the good, and all the bad. So much could happen, but all unknown.
We allowed our own natural body rhythms to wake us in the morning. With twenty-four hours of daylight, we could ride when we wanted and sleep when we wanted. John and I arose early and set upon cooking a big pot of porridge for breakfast, then dragged the kids out of the tent. We stuffed sleeping bags into stuff sacks, rolled up the tent, cleaned and packed the stove, washed the dishes, and headed out once again.
It was another bright, glorious day, and we needed to take advantage of the good weather. We had been warned time and time again that weather in the arctic was unpredictable and nasty. We weren’t looking forward to rain and headwinds, but for now we flew along the flat tundra with a strong wind pushing us forward. Davy was in his element, thrilled with the independence his own bike afforded. We rode side by side along the rough gravel road chatting about the caribou grazing beside us or the lack of trees in the tundra or the tiny wildflowers dotting the ground. I could hear Daryl and John chatting up ahead.
“Davy, look!” I shouted as I pointed ahead of us. “One of Santa’s reindeer!”
Just ahead a caribou leapt nimbly onto the road and stopped to stare at us. His enormous antlers jutted out on either side of his face like branches on a tree. A few seconds later, he was off, loping through the marshy swamplands the tundra had become in the quick spring thaw.
“Wow!” Davy murmured in awe. “Did you see that Mom? Did you see how he just stood there watching us? He was beautiful.”
“This is where Santa keeps his reindeer when they’re not pulling his sleigh,” I told him. “Santa himself lives farther south – down in North Pole.”
“Aw, Mom! These aren’t reindeer – they’re caribou!”
It took a bit of convincing for him to believe they were both.
A while later we reached a pull-off and climbed off our bikes for a break. As the entire area was a swampy mess, finding solid ground other than the road was a challenge. In the winter months, the tundra was frozen solid, but now, in the spring thaw, the top layer had melted and grasses were growing rapidly in the mud due to the extended daylight hours.
I pulled out a baggie full of snacks – granola bars, trail mix, gummies, dried fruit, and other assorted goodies. Four hands vied for space inside the bag as each of us searched for our favorite, and then we sat back and munched. A few seconds later, another hand was in the bag. Then another. And another.
“Did you know those chunks of grass out in the swamp are called tussocks?” I asked as we munched on our snacks. “They start out with one little grass seed taking hold and sprouting in the swampy water. The next spring, the old blades of grass die and new ones grow – but the old blades don’t decompose like they normally would. Any idea why?”
“It’s too cold?” Daryl mumbled as he chewed gummies.
“Kinda. In the winter, it’s too cold for the organisms that would normally eat the leaves and break them down. And in the summer, there just isn’t enough time for them to do it. So the old leaves never decay and new leaves grow every summer. In time, they build up into these tussocks you see.”
“They’re hard to walk on,” Davy told me. “When we were playing tag, they kept wobbling around and I almost fell off.”
When I finally dragged myself off the ground and went to stash the remaining snacks in my pannier, I panicked. The baggie was nearly empty. A few granola bars lay in the bottom of the bag, but that was it. I had diligently packed one baggie per day for the fifteen days I figured it would take us to reach Fairbanks. One baggie with what I thought at the time was plenty of snacks to get us through the day. And now, today’s baggie was nearly empty and we had only barely begun.
I started to think about the food I had packed. More than fifty pounds of food was stashed in my trailer, but I knew now that it wouldn’t be enough. I had carefully planned snacks and meals for four hungry cyclists for fifteen days but, if the boys continued as they were eating now, it wouldn’t be anywhere near sufficient. All four of us, unaccustomed to the demands of the bike, were eating way more than I had budgeted. Davy, a growing boy powering his own bike, had so far eaten nearly three times as much as I had calculated. If this pace kept up, we would run out of food with many miles still to go. And there was no way to resupply.
As I pedaled, I considered our food. We had been fortunate to run into a couple of motorcyclists in Prudhoe Bay. “We packed a whole bunch of freeze dried meals before we left home,” they said, “but we haven’t used hardly any of it. Can we leave it in Coldfoot for you?” At the time, I didn’t think we would need it, but I told them we would appreciate their help. Now, I hoped they really had left it – it was apparent that what I had packed was nowhere near sufficient.
Twice that day we stopped at a stream to filter water and cook. Pasta and porridge filled us up for a few hours before we dove into our rapidly dwindling supply of snacks. How much food can four people eat? I started contemplating how I could stretch our food supply to make it last.
Davy thrilled at the independence of his own bike and quickly outpaced John and me. He raced ahead, then sat patiently for us to catch up. “This is great!” he told us as we took a break at the top of a hill. “I love having my own bike!”
“It’s better on the tandem,” Daryl challenged. “I get to talk with Daddy all the time!”
“Maybe we should load Davy down?” John mumbled as he lay exhausted on the ground. “That would slow him down.”
John and I had made the decision to put Davy on a nearly empty bike. He had four panniers and a big waterproof dry bag lashed on his rear rack, but there was very little weight in those bags. He carried our light, bulky pillows and sleeping mats. We would load him down later, but for now he had a free ride.
When we got tired and were ready to call it a day, we found a dry spot for our tent and got organized for the night. The sun was shining brightly and warmed the tent while the four of us played cards and wrote in our journals inside.
As much as Daryl claimed to hate riding Davy’s bike, he secretly enjoyed it – a bit anyway.
“Tomorrow I’m going to ride Davy’s bike for one hour,” Daryl wrote. “I know I said I hated it but it’s actually pretty easy to ride that thing once you get used to it. All you have to carry is three mats and some clothes.
“It’s not without disadvantages though – I have to be much more wary. Now all I’m wary of is the Alaskan pipeline, caribou, and that river we might have lunch at. I’ll have to be wary of cars and deep gravel. I hope I don’t fall down.”
“Let me guess,” we heard a voice from outside. “The homeschooling family on their way to South America, right?”
John and I scrambled out of the tent. We were in the middle of absolutely nowhere but, with no trees to hide our tent, we were very visible from the road. Even so, we knew nobody on the north slope – or so we thought.
“Hi! I’m Tom,” the man said as he extended his hand. “We exchanged emails a couple months ago.”
One of the many things we had had to do to prepare for our journey was figure out how to transport three bikes, two trailers, and a massive amount of gear up to the Arctic Ocean. Leaving our hometown of Boise, most planes were small commuter planes with no space for all our gear, let alone a tandem bike. In the end, we had flown south to Phoenix before turning north in order to be on large planes that could handle all our gear.
But before we decided to fly, I had researched every option I could think of. We toyed with strapping the bikes on top of our van and driving to Prudhoe Bay. A friend would drive the van back to Fairbanks and sell it. That option was problematic in that it wasted a full week, and we were pushing our narrow window of opportunity to get south by winter as it was.
Another option was to somehow ship the bikes and gear up to Prudhoe Bay, then we could fly empty-handed. But where to ship them? I contacted all the geocachers who had planted caches on the north slope to ask for help. Tom was one of them. “I work in Prudhoe Bay,” he had told me. “I’ll ask around.” In the end, that option didn’t pan out, but we planned to meet Tom when we arrived in Fairbanks.
And now – here he was, standing before us in blue jeans and green polo shirt with a massive smile gracing his face. “I saw those bikes and the tent and figured it couldn’t be anybody else. We see a fair number of cyclists up here, but not with a tandem and a bunch of trailers. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Since you asked,” John said, “we’ve realized we don’t have nearly as many snacks as we’re going to need. You don’t happen to have any granola bars or anything, do you?”
“No, I don’t have anything with me,” Tom replied. Our hearts fell as we heard those words. “But I tell you what – I’ll leave you a bag of food at the gate to the pipeline pump station tomorrow morning. I have a meeting in the morning, so I won’t be able to meet you there, but look behind the gate and I’ll leave some goodies.”
We awoke to clear blue skies again – unheard-of in the tundra, or so we had been told. I thanked my lucky stars as I packed my bike – good weather three days in a row, and a bag of goodies awaiting us twelve miles away. We climbed aboard and set off down the rough dirt road.
“Jackpot!” Daryl exclaimed as his eyes widened to the size of the boulders we had just been bouncing over. He gazed upon the booty in wonder. “Wow!” The four of us pawed through the massive bag of snacks Tom had left us.
“I want Oreos!”
“Gimme trail mix!”
“I want the gummies!”
It was massive. Absolutely enormous. More snacks than I ever could have dreamed of. Tom had loaded us up with every kind of snack known to mankind. We ate three each, then I stashed the rest in my trailer. I knew we still had a long way to go.
Up ahead I could see the mountains looming before us. The Brooks Range was our first major obstacle, and one I feared more than ever. Weather in the far north is a major concern, and I had read more stories than I cared to recall about bad weather on the pass crossing the continental divide. Other cyclists had reported rain or hail or a full-on blizzard as they crossed at this time of year. We had packed the boys’ winter jackets just in case, and were prepared with full rain gear. But still – if bad weather hit up there, we were in trouble.
Mile by mile, we drew closer to the mountains. The tundra was abuzz with activity in the short summer season. There was a very narrow window of time for plants and animals in the tundra to proliferate, and bees were busy pollinating the flowers that had sprung up in the tundra. Herds of caribou and musk ox grazed on grasses that had just transformed the tundra from a vast ice field to a giant lush green carpet. Many species of fish could be seen through the clear waters of the rivers and ponds we passed.
The boys were thrilled to be on the road. They were in their element, outside where they belonged. They loved playing with sticks and stones, running through fields covered with wild flowers, and jumping from boulder to boulder. Even though our lives were anything but easy, the boys were thriving on the challenges and loving being in Mother Nature’s handiwork.
Day five dawned with sunny skies and tailwinds – unheard-of luck. We thanked the man upstairs for holding off bad weather and headed into the narrow valley winding up to the pass. The road climbed gradually and we bounced over the rough rocky surface. Going was slow, but we managed to keep moving. The wind shifted into a headwind and we slowed even more. But still – it wasn’t rain, so all was well. We would choose a headwind over cold rain any day.
We were nine miles from the top when we noticed dark clouds amassing over the mountains. Patches of sunshine broke through here and there, and we hoped it wouldn’t be too bad on top. We would know soon enough.
Six miles later all hell broke loose. Rain poured from the skies and wind drove hail into our faces like BBs. We scrambled to cram all our gear into plastic bags and get our raingear on. It was a mad frantic dash as the heavens unleashed their fury.
The fury was short-lived, however, and by the time we got ourselves and our gear protected, the rain had passed. We continued up. John, a much stronger cyclist than I, managed to pedal up the pass. Davy and I didn’t. We pushed our heavy bikes up the climb, leaning into the handlebars in order to use our whole body to push. Step by painful step we crept up the mountainside past massive piles of snow left over from winter.
Minutes passed, then hours, and still we pushed. The top remained somewhere up there, unseen beyond the next switchback. Or the one after that. “Keep it up, Davy,” I tried to encourage him. “You’re doing great.” He smiled back at me and kept plodding up the mountain.
“This is it!” John shouted down to us. “We’re at the top!” Up ahead I could see John and Daryl silhouetted against a massive wall of snow.
“We made it, Mommy!” Daryl called. “We did it!”
The top! We had made it up our first pass! We were standing 4643 feet higher than where we started at the Arctic Ocean! We thanked the weather gods for holding off on the rain, even though it was cloudy and dreary, and headed down.
We awoke the following morning to the pitter-patter of rain on the tent. Steady drizzle. Black skies. Mucky roads. Yuck. Stay? Or go? We had learned on our previous bike tour that we hated riding in the rain. A warm rain was tolerable, but a cold rain was downright miserable. Although we had rain gear, riding in rain was still awful. We could keep our legs and torso dry, but there is no good way to keep feet and hands dry and warm while cycling. And the mud – rain would turn the road into a deep, mucky mess that swallowed bike tires and refused to let them spin.
As much as we hated the idea of riding in the rain, we hated the idea of no food even more. We only had a certain amount of food and no way of getting more. If we hung out in the tent for the day – and ate food – there would be even less to get us to Fairbanks. And besides, what if it was raining really hard tomorrow? At least now it was just a drizzle. My boys stood before me like baby birds as I shoveled a few spoonfuls of peanut butter into their mouths. Then we packed up our bikes, and took off.
Water dripped off my helmet onto my nose as I pedaled through the quickly worsening mess in the road. Rain had fallen steadily all day, and all four of us were tired and cranky. Bickering between us had risen to astronomical proportions as we fought hunger and cold. Our stove got wet and wouldn’t light. Attempts to sit by a stream to pump water were futile in the mud and we ended up having to haul up pot after pot of water so John could filter on the side of the road. We were miserable.
Finally we called it a day. Slipping and sliding in the muck, we set up our tent on a grassy patch and quickly threw sleeping bags and pads inside. I managed to get the stove dried out and John held a tarp over me and the stove as I cooked Rice-a-Roni. Rather than sitting in the mud, we stood in a huddle holding our steaming bowls of rice. We were wet and cold and muddy and hungry. Maybe, just maybe, the Dalton Highway would win the battle after all.
By the time we woke up the next morning, we had an entirely different problem. We lay in our tent snuggled up in our sleeping bags and stared at the mesh screen above us, listening to the ferocious buzzing surrounding the tent. Overnight, the mosquitoes had hatched and were desperate for food. We were prime sources.
Although we had heard stories of the mosquitoes in Alaska, we had yet to see even one. But that morning, hordes of the critters slathered our tent like peanut butter on bread. Humming, buzzing, swarming our tent waiting for the moment we emerged.
“Okay – here’s the plan,” John directed. “We’ll get everything packed up as much as we can before we open the tent. All sleeping bags stuffed, all pillows packed. Everything waiting right by the door. As soon as I open that door, the mosquitoes will swarm in, so we need to move fast.”
As mosquitoes feasted on every bit of exposed flesh, we dashed and scurried around the campsite packing up. John and the boys took down the tent while I prepared breakfast. We ate walking in circles to minimize the number of bites we ended up with. The good news was that it wasn’t raining.
We had crossed the tree line while battling rain the day before, and now the road was nothing more than a narrow ribbon etched through thick, dense forest. Trees rely on photosynthesis to create their food, and photosynthesis requires energy from the sun. With so few days of sunlight up north, trees simply couldn’t sustain themselves. Now, we had reached that magical line where there were enough days of sunlight for trees to grow.
The trees were small, but plentiful, and were more beautiful than I could have imagined after not having seen any for so many miles. If not for the mosquitoes, life would have been perfect. With chocolate, even more perfect.
“Hey guys! Want some Coke and chocolate?”
We looked up in surprise at the white van passing by, and at the smiling face hanging out of the driver’s door. “We’re on our way back into town tomorrow and have some extra food. You want it?” Who was this angel anyway?
We quickly made friends with Hugh, a tour guide in the area, and the people who were on his tour to the arctic tundra. They were all more than happy to part with a bit of their stash, and we were more than happy to take it. Hugh handed us a big bag of trail mix, a bunch of chocolate, and a package of peanut-butter-filled, chocolate-covered pretzels. Our eyes bugged out at the manna from heaven, and we thanked them all profusely. The four of us stood there on the side of the road with bags of chocolate and cans of Coke in our hands and thanked the gods for sending such a wonderful gift.
The next day life got even better. We reached Coldfoot. We piled off our bikes and headed into the restaurant. Inside! In a building! A real live building made of wood and metal with glass windows! It had been eight days since we left the shelter and protection of the Arctic Caribou Inn. Eight days of life in the outdoors. We were ready to be pampered with tables and chairs and a real toilet – for a little while anyway. We ordered a few enormous breakfasts and ate until we couldn’t eat any more. I even convinced the cook to refill my empty peanut butter jar.
But even better than a meal at the restaurant was the enormous bag of freeze-dried meals the motorcyclists we had met in Prudhoe Bay had left for us. We pored over them, checking each one out. Macaroni and cheese… beef stroganoff… chicken fried rice… blueberry crumble… We were in heaven. We had food.
Our lives improved even more when we headed outside to pack away all the bags of freeze-dried food. Hugh and his tour group showed up again and handed over all their left-over food before they returned to Fairbanks; cheese and turkey and bread and tomatoes and potato chips and cookies. For John and me, he had beers; for the kids, Sprite and Coke. Food! Our chances of making it to Fairbanks just got a whole lot better.
Life became a perfectly choreographed dance as we learned to deal with the mosquitoes and rain. We figured out how to put up the tent and get organized in record time. Everyone had their job and executed it perfectly – our blood supply depended on it. All the while, mosquitoes ravaged any part of our bodies they could find exposed. The hordes saw us as an open all-you-can-eat buffet.
We had discovered the mosquitoes weren’t quite as bad in the middle of bridges, so we took full advantage of that fact. When it was time to cook, we waited until we crossed over a major river with a nice, long bridge. I grabbed the stove and headed out to the very middle of the bridge before setting up the stove. We ate pacing back and forth across the bridge. Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic on the Dalton Highway.
But the worst part of the mosquitoes was what I dubbed Itchy Bum Syndrome or IBS. I discovered the mosquitoes couldn’t bite through my rain gear, so I wore that most of the time and put DEET on my hands and face. But when nature called and I had to drop my drawers, it was sheer torture. After each time I headed behind a tree to do my business, I returned to my bike scratching my bum like a monkey scratches his armpits.
As we continued southward, we left behind the relatively flat northern areas and entered into hills. Monstrous hills. Steep, 15% grade, knee-busting, bike-walking hills. As we slowly crawled up the hills, mosquitoes attacked. We slopped bug juice on top of sun screen and sweat. We were a mess.
One day we came across a large, crystal clear river and looked forward to a nice bath – until we felt the icy water. Daryl and I braved the nearly-freezing temps and plunged in. John and Davy splashed a bit of water on their faces and called it good.
Days blended together, becoming a blurred tapestry of hills, mosquitoes, heat, freezing water, and hunger. The longer we were on the road, the more the boys were eating. Even with our gifts of food, I feared we would not have enough to get us to Fairbanks. I carefully rationed our snacks and doled out spoonfuls of peanut butter to the boys to keep their caloric intake up. Even so, food was rarely far from our minds.
John and I cut back on our intake in order to save food for the boys. Rather than eating one whole bag of freeze-dried food each, we shared one. We gave our snacks to the kids. We were perpetually hungry, but figured we had enough body fat to get us through. The boys didn’t.
We celebrated when we reached the Arctic Circle – now the sun would set at last! Even though the sun barely dipped below the horizon, it was a sign that life would eventually return to normal and we would sleep in darkness again. What we didn’t relish, however, were the hills the Arctic Circle brought.
For some reason, south of the Arctic Circle, the hills on the Dalton Highway become massive. Ozarks on steroids. Huge, steep climbs, followed by equally huge, steep descents. Up and down. Up and down. Many of the climbs we walked, pushing our heavy bikes. Others we ground up slowly, inch by painful inch. And all the while, mosquitoes swarmed around our heads.
And then came the flashing blue lights.
“May I see your ID please?” asked the security officer who had pulled up behind us. The blue lights pulsed ominously. “I hear you folks camped by the pipeline last night. Some workers called me this morning.”
“We did,” John responded. “It was a great spot – a bit buggy perhaps, but otherwise it was comfortable.”
“You are aware it’s illegal to camp in the pipeline corridor, aren’t you?”
For days we had been camping next to the oil pipeline. With the dense vegetation south of the treeline, the only two places we could find a spot big enough to set the tent up were in the middle of the road or next to the pipeline. At each access point to the pipeline, there was a sign indicating that non-motorized vehicles were allowed. We figured that included us, as we couldn’t imagine they would consider Daryl’s motor-mouth a vehicle. We explained that to the security officer.
“You’ve been camping back in the right-of-way for a week? Next to the pipeline?” he asked. The look on his face was one of sheer disbelief.
“We’re not the only ones to camp by the pipeline,” I explained. “I’ve been reading loads of journals by other cyclists; each and every one talks about camping by the pipeline. It’s really the only place to put a tent around here.”
“Well, I just want to let you know it’s illegal to camp there and you’ll probably get a citation if you do it again,” the officer responded. “Folks around here take pipeline security very seriously – you would have the state police up here and that blue and white helicopter you see flying around would land right next to you. You don’t want to go there.”
We shook our heads and continued on.
“What’s the big deal about the pipeline?” Daryl asked as we pedaled up the next hill.
“It’s really an amazing thing,” I responded, recognizing a teachable moment. “What do you know about the pipeline?”
“I know they built it to transport oil.”
“But why? Why don’t they just send the ships up to Prudhoe Bay to get the oil?”
“The oil is up on the north slope,” I explained. “But the ocean freezes up there in the winter, and ships have a really hard time floating on ice. That’s why they built this pipeline – 800 miles down to Valdez. The water never freezes in Valdez so the ships can get in all year long.”
“It’s 800 miles?” John asked. “Is it really that long?”
“That’s what I read before we left home. But they didn’t build it that long – when they built it, it was a lot shorter. Any idea why it’s longer now??
“They added more to the end?” Davy guessed
“Nope. The pipeline was cold when they built it, but oil is hot. What happens when something gets hot?”
“The molecules take up more space so it gets bigger!”
“Exactly. So when they built the pipeline, it was one length, but after they put the oil in it the pipeline expanded by four feet for each mile. Cool, eh? But the really amazing part is this – they built it with a bunch of corners so it could expand. Otherwise it would all get crammed together. Look – see there! It’s straight for a mile or so, then they built a zigzag into it so it could expand. Another reason it zigzags is so it can move with earthquakes. Is that cool or what?”
“Yeah, whatever. That’s really cool,” they said with ten-year-old sarcasm.
We passed a little stream with clear water and climbed off our bikes to filter. John pulled the filter out and I pulled the pot out. The boys scampered around gathering all the water bottles from the bikes. Taking everything we needed, the four of us picked our way over and around boulders and trees to reach the riverbank below us.
I filled the pot with water and set it carefully by John’s feet. He placed the intake tube of the filter in the pot and the outtake tube into a water bottle and pumped. He pumped. And pumped. But nothing happened. Nothing. No water went into the filter; no water came out. Nothing.
John took the filter apart to see what was happening. All looked well, but it didn’t work. The boys and I stood over him, worried. Our filter was critical. It was one of many absolutely essential items we could not live without.
What now? We were still days away from Fairbanks. Drink water straight from the streams? How sick would we get? Was the trip over? Hitch a ride and head down to Fairbanks?
Unsure what our next steps would be, we headed back up to the road with the busted water filter. Just then a motorcyclist pulled up.
“Gads!” he exclaimed when he saw the boys out in the middle of nowhere traveling on bikes. “This is quite the story. What’s up with you guys?”
“Our water filter just broke,” John told him. “We have no idea what we’re going to do.”
“I have a filter. I’ve carried it all the way from California and never needed it once. I’ll sell it to you if you want.”
We happily forked over the money, said goodbye, and headed back down to the stream with filter in hand. We were grateful for the universe intervening just when we needed it.
Thirty minutes later another motorcyclist pulled up from behind and handed us some money. “This is from Jim – the other motorcyclist you talked with,” he said. “He felt badly about charging you for the water filter and wanted to give this back to you.”
Wow! Those Road Angels were everywhere.
We rode hard in order to find hamburgers. One of the few restaurants on the Dalton was a burger joint and we were on a mission to get there. I could see the big juicy burgers in my mind’s eye. As I pedaled, I listened to the crackling sound of burgers cooking on the grill and smelled the hearty, meaty aroma….
Eleven days and 375 miles after we started our journey, our ragtag bunch of filthy cyclists poured into the hamburger joint and stuffed the best burgers in the world in our mouths, trying our darndest to overcome the caloric deficit we had endured for days. Wonderful, juicy burgers were just what we needed.
“This is even better than a visit to a candy shop!” John joked.
“Better than a candy shop with a lot of money!” Daryl added.
There were a lot of odd things about the Dalton, but one of them was that we traveled 240 miles to the first restaurant, another 135 to the second, and only four to the next. In order to take advantage of both restaurants, we ate dinner at the burger joint, then breakfast the following morning at the restaurant next to the Yukon River. For the first time in a week, we started the day with full and happy bellies.
We crossed the Yukon River and kept pedaling through the hills. From the top of one enormously overgrown hill we could see the entire gargantuan climb of the next. South of the Yukon, however, the hills were graded so we could ride rather than push our heavy bikes.
On day fourteen, we awoke with only twenty-four miles of the Dalton Highway left to pedal. Twenty-four miles. We had pedaled 390 and were so close. Nothing could stop us now!
It was almost as though the Dalton saved the best for last, and we struggled mightily those last few miles. Hills that never ended… very rough road surface… heat, humidity, mosquitoes…. But finally we came around a corner and could see that ribbon of pavement up ahead. The Elliot Highway! We had done it! We had conquered the Dalton. My legs were fried. They had been reduced to a trembling mass of quivering flesh, but nothing could hold me back. We had made it.
We climbed off our bikes and leaned them against a guardrail along the Elliot Highway – a ninety-mile stretch of paved road that would take us to Fairbanks. My food bags were nearly empty, but now I knew – I knew we could do it. I broke out my last bag of freeze dried banana cream pie for our celebration party and the four of us sent up a good long shout.
“WE DID IT! WE CONQUERED THE DALTON!”
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