Thursday, December 12, 2013


What is the criteria to call for a ride? I don’t have any hard and fast rules, but here is a story about a time when I hadn’t the choice.

Early October in Anchorage Alaska. We’ve got some snow on the ground and I’ve been working on the north slope for the past two months and things have been frozen up there that whole time. I’m riding my fat bike and trying to do some exploring on some trails I’ve never ridden before.

There is a large swath of land in Anchorage that is swamp or muskeg. This means that for part of the year there are areas that are not rideable. But on the converse, once it freezes, there are some wonderful riding options that open up.

Riding new areas presents challenges, particularly when you are breaking trail and don’t know exactly where the trail goes or how to link up the trails you know with the new areas you’re riding.

Early October.  In the 20’s. No wind. Sunny. Still riding the clipless pedals. Light gloves. Light jacket. Rolling through the woods and building a nice sweat. Four miles from home. Two miles from the nearest main road. Less than a half mile from the nearest road in general.

The trail I’m on is used in the winter by dog mushers. In the summer it’s a swamp. Right now I’m the only one out there.

Seeing no other bike tracks should have been a hint. Hit up some kind of familiar single tracks. Then cut through the woods following what appears to be a social trail that ends up dumping me onto a wide trail through the woods, clearly a dog sled trail. Good ups and downs, some nice corners, then a drop into stream crossing. The stream is frozen over, but there is some overflow. Nothing to worry about though. Ride through it without issue, but once through, the sled trail seems to disappear. Rather, multiple trails branch off. I take the one to the north, figuring that this trail will meet up with the trails I know.

After a half mile and no roadway coming into view, I start to worry that I might have made the wrong choice. Another quarter mile later I came to a stream that wasn’t frozen. I had no choice other than to cross it. It was small enough that I was able to jump it without getting my feet wet.

The next stream crossing wasn’t quite so easy. It was about six and a half feet of open water with another two to three feet of ice on each bank. I laid the bike down across the gap to use as a bridge. Hell, it’s a Pugsley, so I figure it can handle it. I just wish the ice would’ve been able to handle it. I get half way across the bike bridge when the ice ahead of me broke, spilling the front of the bike and me into the water. Water up to my shin. Icy. Almost instantly my toes go numb.

I hike a bike a ways, cross a few more streams. Well, the same stream, just different bends of it. By the third or fourth crossing both feet are numb and soaked. I’m walking more than riding as there are no paths here.
Eventually I come to a large flat field. I hop back on the bike and start winding my way among the humocks – hunting for the easiest riding. I can see that it is ice that I am riding on. I’m nervous because of the amount of open water I’ve already crossed and who knows how deep the water under the ice is.

The thing is, I know right where I am now. I know that I have less than a half mile until I get to the roadway. I can see the power lines that run parallel to the road. But I don’t know about the ice. I don’t know how deep the water is. I don’t know if I can make a straight shot to the road or if I’ll have to wind around and take the long way. The other option is to backtrack to where I last knew where I was and then make the ride back home – six or seven miles versus a half mile to the road and then two miles of road riding to get home.

So I keep moving forward. I’m able to ride. For a while, anyway. Until my front wheel breaks through the ice. Well, through a top layer of ice. Back to hike a bike, but no water. Each step breaks me through the top layer of ice and through a six inch void before landing on a second layer of ice.

I continue on, though. Pushing the bike, breaking through the ice. I know that the road is right there. I just need to make it there, then I can head for home and be warm and toasty in no time flat.

I can see some open water where a moose has obviously punched through, but I can’t tell how deep it is. I detour around, trying to avoid thinner ice. Instead I punch through myself. Water sloshes into my shoes and over my calf. I can feel my foot sinking into the mud and hope that my shoe doesn’t get sucked from my foot.

My next step takes me deeper into the water. I’m to my knee now. What do I do? I decide to take another step to see how deep that one goes. Just to the knee again. I push forward, water to my knees for another 75 yards or so. I can’t feel anything below my knees, so I figure there’s no use worrying about getting wet at this point.

My next step I only sink to my ankle and I think this is a good thing. Besides, I can see the road now. See the cars moving back and forth. What? 500 yards, 1000? I step forward, the longest journey beginning with a single step and all. And I sink to my waist in nearly freezing water. The bike floats and keeps me from submerging completely. I am sinking in the mud and ooze and know at this point I have to move forward even if that means that I have to swim.

I hold onto the bike as a life preserver and take my next step, tentative. Same depth. Again and again, the water doesn’t get any deeper or shallower. Then it does. Knee deep. Shin. Ankle. Then dry land. A small rise before the drop into the ditch and the road on the other side. The ditch, too, is full of water. I have one more gauntlet to run.

I go full bore, running, figuring I’m gonna get wet no matter what, so… The water is mid-thigh deep with a sheen of road grime and oil. I plow through and make it to the road. I hope on the bike, click into the pedals and start riding. My legs don’t want to work and as I come to a stop to cross the busy roadway I can’t disengage from the pedals – I’m frozen in and the bike tips with me on it. Every sense is dulled. I slowly get up, walk across the road during a break in the traffic on wooden legs, take the emergency cell phone out of my pack, and call the wife for a ride. I know that I could make the ride, but the combo of wet and weather would likely result in hypothermia. Even in the city in Alaska the land can kill you. 

1 comment:

  1. I read that just as I was thinking it was time to start commuting across the lake...I still think it is time. Glad you lived to tell the tale.