an expedition to
A solo journey by bicycle from Lisbon to Labrador. Starting at the farthest West point of Europe and going to the farthest East point in North America. From the Atlantic ocean in Portugal, the trip will skirt the Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian seas. The route then crosses steep mountain ranges and through the vast open steppes of Central Asia. The most difficult challenge will be heading into the uninhabited reaches of Siberia and Alaska in winter. The path then crosses the interior of Canada before finally ending back on the shores of the Atlantic. An epic human powered journey to connect the people of the world using the power of the bicycle.
Date: March 21st, 2017
Distance: 63 kilometers
Song of the Day: Nothing in My Way - Keane
I got back on the trail today. I'm so happy to have a great trail to follow. For those of you who don't know, Nome is the endpoint of the Iditarod sled dog race. This year I'm in luck as the trail starts in Fairbanks. It has happened a few times in the last ten years because of low snow near Anchorage. There are actually three trails for the Iditarod, the usual one and then two alternates. Since the second alternate, the one from Fairbanks, was used it's nicely packed down and well marked. I thought I would have to pick my way along with GPS but now that I'm out here I can see it is staked out every hundred yards or so. This should make it a breeze to follow.
This first day wasn't that exciting, though. It was mostly flat and boring, running along the beach. At the end of the day I found an old cabin I could spend the night in. Should be good for getting on the trail early tomorrow.
Date: March 20th, 2017
Distance: Rest day
Still resting up in Nome. I was able to get my belt and spoon today, though. It's the little things...
Date: March 19th, 2017
Distance: Rest Day
I'm back staying with Paul and Stacey, mostly just resting up and replenishing supplies of food and body fat. I've lost enough weight that I now need a belt to hold my pants up. I've also lost my spoon, so I need to get one of those too.
Date: March 18th, 2017
Distance: 15 kilometers
Song of the Day: End of the World - Cumulus
Troy woke me up in the morning before dawn. He was out doing rounds about the base and checking on things. I imagine with the bike tire tracks in the snow it wasn't too hard to find me. He came by with some more food and a hot cup of tea. Troy, thanks for everything. Good luck out there.
I headed out down the road just before the sun was up. First I made a stop at the White Alice site at the edge of the base. These were tropospheric-scatter communication systems from the mid-50s. It was a way for Alaskans to talk to each other before satellite telephone communications were set up in the early 70s. As my father described it, "Basically you pump kilowats of radio waves into the atmosphere at the right frequency and it bounces off the troposphere." There used to be a series of these sites all over the state. Most have long been torn down and the only two left are the ones here at Tin City and a second site back outside of Nome. Each one consists of a pair of giant parabolic dishes about 60 feet high. (The one in Nome actually has two pairs each facing a different direction.) It is crazy to think of what people had to go through to just be able to talk, back in the day. My dad laughed because he used one to call my mom from Barrow years ago and now I could talk to him over a satellite phone from Russia. I was happy to get to see the place. It's cool technology and a fun bit of history. Plus, they just look cool, like something from a Sci-Fi movie.
After leaving the White Alice site I... lost the road. The guys weren't kidding when they said the road isn't maintained out to Wales. I couldn't even see it under all the snow. Even with the road to Teller I could generally see where it went, even if it was covered in a few feet of snow. Not here, though. I wonder what kind of shape the road is in under all of that... I'm glad I stayed at Tin City and didn't try to press on in the dark.
I was in for a bit of luck, though. There were trail markers. I didn't know that the markers would actually go to Wales but it seemed the only logical place they might lead to. I keep saying there isn't a whole lot out here and I really mean it.
After a bunch of miles and hitting far too many patches of soft snow I found a second set of markers. They looked just like the ones I had seen on my first aborted trip to get here from Brevig Mission. My guess is that they marked the other end of the trail. Shortly after that I found a good section of road. It wasn't being cleared of snow, but someone was keeping it graded during the summers at least. The wind did a pretty good job of scouring the snow off of it. I was happy to be back on "good" roads again.
After six days and tons of miserable miles I finally made it to Wales. The first thing I did was check in at the local school. When I arrived I was told the land manager for the native corporation was already looking for me. Okay, cool, maybe he could help me out. While at the school I made a few calls. I set up a flight to take me back to Nome. My original intention was to ride my bike back, but getting here was stupid enough. I wasn't going to do it a second time. If I had know how easy it was I would have flown to Wales from the start, but you live, you learn. I also called Paul in Nome to let him know that I was doing well. He was on the local search and rescue team and I didn't want him to worry. As it turns out, he had just called the local State Troopers to ask about me as I was arriving in Wales. He'd already gotten the message that I was in town by the time I called him. News travels fast in a small place.
I also got in touch with Woodrow, the local land manager. He answered a few questions for me about the area, like where exactly the furthest west point was. He also wanted me to sign a few things. The land in this area is all owned by the native corporation so traveling out here is controlled by them. I signed an indemnification agreement and then I had to pay a land use fee. Well, there is $225 dollars I didn't know about. Oh well. At least it's going to be used to help the local community.
With the paperwork out of the way it was time to do what I had come all this way for. I went out and found the furthest west point of North America. There really isn't anything out there. In fact it wasn't all that clear where the land ended and the sea ice began. Still, I can now say I have been to the Arctic Sea and stood on it. I took a few pictures but it isn't all that exciting. Hey look, snow! And...more snow! I also made a little video just south of the furthest point at the "light house". It isn't really a house, just a navigational marker for a shallow spot, but at least it's more interesting than just plain snow. From there I could see Little and maybe Big Diomede.
Once I had made my recordings it was time to head in. The wind out here was wretched and tearing at any little bit of exposed flesh. By the time I got back to the airstrip I had just enough time to take my bike apart before the plane landed. Getting it on the plane was pretty easy and the pilots were very nice. They were excited to hear about my trip. By the time we got back to Nome they even invited me back to the pilots' lodge for a beer and to share a few stories. It was a lot of fun. I was happy to be back in Nome.
Date: March 17th, 2017
Distance: 17 kilometers
Song of the Day: The End - Kings of Leon
When I woke up in the morning, I found that my tent was now buried in about a foot of snow. My Nook looked so sad and half collapsed, but it has done perfectly. I slept quite well. Packing up did take a little while.
When I finally got everything ready to go I only made it 10 steps before I realized something was wrong. The back tire was completely flat. This set off a good two minutes of cursing and furious fist shaking. If I had known that was a problem I would have fixed it in my tent. After calming down I figured the first step was just to see how fast the leak was. I went to put some air in the tire and noticed the valve stem was a bit loose. That seemed odd, so I put in a bit of air and called it good. All my great fears aside it turns out that was all it needed. I guess the storm had worked the valve stem loose and let the air out. I have never seen anything like it, but I'm glad it wasn't worse. Repairing a tube in the cold was not what I wanted to start the day.
The rest of the day was pretty much like the day before. Riding on bluffs, riding on sea ice. Riding anywhere the snow was solid enough to hold the weight of my bike. Eventualy I passed by the point my GPS had told me that Tin City was at. Boy am I glad I camped when I did the night before. I would have been highly dissapointed. There was absolutely nothing there, just some driftwood logs washed up on a barren shoreline.
By the end of the day I found a great stretch of beach to ride on. Mostly it was just bare sand and pebbles, all of it frozen hard and great to ride on. For once I was actually able to really go. I started to get the idea I might actually make it to Wales today. And I would need to. I had run out of water. Without fuel to boil down snow I was resorting to melting snow inside my coat. Have you ever melted snow for water? It takes a lot of snow to get a decent amount of water.
Up ahead I knew there was going to be a bit of a challenge. A mountain loomed in the distance, the geological anchor to the end of the Seward Peninsula. I was told there was a road from the base of the mountain around it to the North so I could have continued to travel along the coastline, but a few people had warned me there was open ocean out that way. I didn't want to go that way. Not only did I not want to fall through the ice into the ocean but polar bears use the open water to hunt for seals. I really don't ever want to have an encounter with one. They actively hunt humans when the opportunity arises. No thanks. So it was going to be up into the mountains for me.
As I got to the base of the mountain I was surprised by a few strange shapes on the mountains. As I got closer I could see that these were clearly man-made objects, which was a bit of relief. Frankly, I hadn't seen anything man-made since I left Lost River. (Well, other than a few bush planes flying over now and again.) It seemed to offer hope that I was finally getting to the end of my journey. The shapes didn't make much sense, though. It looked as if there was a set of power lines running right over the top of the mountain. I was thinking, what kind of idiot would run power lines that way?
At the end of the beach I came up over a small rise and could see down into the gully at the foot of the mountain. It was littered with old buildings and rusting equipment. So this is Tin City. It was almost 5 miles from where my GPS had told me it would be. Above it was an old military building that looked abandoned but was still covered with old radar and satellite equipment. There was even a new wind turbine, but it didn't look operational. I thought it was a strange place. In looking at it, though, I found an even better sight: a road. A great and wonderful road. A road that someone had been clearing the snow from.
I made my way down onto the road. I was so happy to be back on solid gravel. Of course, the road immediately began to go uphill. I was so out of energy and water at this point I couldn't do much more than a couple of miles an hour. It was a slow crank to the top. I thought about walking but I had only just gotten to the road and I was not going to waste the opportunity. Once I made it to the top I could see the road split in two directions. One went east down into a narrow valley and up to a small airstrip on the other side. The other way lead north, and that was the way I was trying to go. I only made it a few hundred yards before I heard the sound of an engine. At first I thought it was a small plane overhead so I ignored it but after a minute I heard the honking of a car horn. I turned around and there was a truck on the road with me. It seemed to have pretty much come out of nowhere.
The truck, it turns out, had come from the military building I had passed and thought was abandoned. I think the two guys in the truck, Brian and Troy, were just as surprised to see me as I was to see them. They thought I appeared out of nowhere just the way I thought they had. Brian had spotted me making my slow way up the road. He told Troy, who didn't believe him, but they followed my path to find me. They were shocked to see anyone out there, and I think they were impressed that anyone had made it out this far. We chatted for a bit and I asked if they had a bit of water. The didn't have any with them but invited me back to the base to get some. I dropped the bike where it was, it wasn't like anyone was going to come and steal it, and hopped in the truck with them.
The building was home to the Tin City Long-Range Radar site run by the Air Force. It had been built in the 50s to watch for planes coming into US airspace, and still serves that function today. The towers heading up the mountain used to run a cable car up to the radar dome at the top. The dome is still there, but the cable car is long gone. The base itself is much diminished as well. The building used to house over 200 people but now there are just 4 here on two month rotations. Inside, the building was warm and fairly modern, albeit with that utilitarian military feel. So homey. Brian and Troy were happy to get me water and so much more. They happily served up food and hot chocolate, because they have more food than anyone could possibly eat. Part of it was to make sure the people here are happy and another part of it is to make sure they can't run out of supplies in case bad weather keeps the supply planes from coming in. (The airfield I had seen on the mountain opposite is just for them.) It means that they ended up throwing away an amazing amount of food and were only too happy to have it go to someone who really needed it. When they asked if there was anything I wanted, I said the one thing I had been dreaming of was a can of Coke. Troy asked how many I wanted. When I said I wanted 2 he went and brought me two cases. I really wish I could have taken them up on the offer but I couldn't carry that much on the bike. Still, the guys were great. I had a fun time talking with them about what they did and telling them about my adventures. It was crazy to meet such wonderful folks in a crazy place that I never before knew existed. Troy and Brian, you guys are awesome. Thank you.
By the time I was done eating the sun was just setting. Unfortunately it was against military regulations for me to stay there. The guys were a bit sad about that since, with only 4 people in a space built for 200, there was plenty of extra room. Still, Brian and Troy told me not to try and head to Wales. I thought it was just another few miles on clear roads but they said the road isn't cleared all the way. They only plow the parts that help them access the site, namely the airfield. It would also be 9 more miles to Wales. Oh well. I would get there tomorrow. I found a nice abandoned mine building I could camp out in for the night. What a wild day.
Date: March 16th, 2017
Distance: 12 kilometers
Song of the Day: No Quarter - Led Zeppelin
Today was cloudy with some snow flurries. I was glad the wind was at my back for once. It sort of pushed me along the whole day.
I feel like I spent the entire day trying to find somewhere to ride. Sometimes the best place to ride was on the edge of a bluff. Or maybe it was at the base of the cliffs. More often than you would think, the hard packed snow was about halfway up the slope. It made for some odd riding, but I did my best. Other times I was out on the sea ice. The cliffs along shore were often too steep and rocky to ride near. I found one good bay that I could ride quite a distance along, though. The clouds and wind late in the day kept the visibility low but I tried to look out for polar bears as best I could. That is a real concern out here. I really don't have much of a defense from them, but I would just rather spot my doom before they can see me. At least I was biking right along, although I don't kid myself that could outrun them even on the bike.
As things got dark I was out on the ice again. The clouds obscuring the sun didn't help. Some parts of the ice sheet were just covered in a thin dusting of snow, other places the drifts could be up to a foot deep. With the gloom and dim light it all looked the same. I couldn't tell the difference until I ran smack into one of the deep drifts. At that point it was time to get off the ice. I pointed my bike to shore and kept pushing on.
Back on land, or what counts for land out here, I was mostly back to pushing my bike. I could see I was only a few miles away from Tin City on my GPS. If I could get there I was hoping to find a cabin, and if I was really lucky a stove to keep me warm. I was happy to keep pushing on. The wind was at my back and I was feeling full of energy. Eventually the light fully faded and I switched to using my headlamp. I was prepared to walk all night if I had to, but the winds only grew stronger as the darkness sank in. I wasn't sure if it was snowing or if the gusts were just blowing snow around. Either way, by midnight I couldn't see 20 feet. I couldn't even tell which direction I was heading in. I had to keep looking at my compass to make sure I was going the right way. It was at this point I started thinking that maybe this is one of those stories you hear that always ends with "...and they never found him." It was time to stop and hunker down for the night.
I put on just about all the clothes I had and set up my tent. This wasn't so easy in what was basically a blizzard. I would have loved to find some small bit of shelter from the wind, like an old stump or a large rock, but I couldn't see anything. When I finally got my tent up getting ready to sleep wasn't easy either. This whole trip I've been using my MSR Nook tent. It's been great, but it's only built for 3 seasons. Before, this has never been a problem. It's survived high altitudes in the Pamir mountains, high winds and thunderstorms in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, even -40 temperatures in Russia. I figured there was no reason to use a 4 season tent. They usually cost twice as much and are double the weight. This was the only time I ever wished for a 4 season tent. The high winds blew fine snow under the rain fly and right through the mesh of the tent. It was snowing almost as badly inside as out. Everything was covered in snow. I couldn't keep it out. Being out of fuel wasn't really a problem since I couldn't have cooked on my stove anyway. Instead I just curled up in my sleeping bag and fell asleep.
Date: March 15th, 2017
Distance: 8 kilometers
Song of the Day: Close to Tears - Actionslacks
Today was just another brutal slog. It was sunnier than the day before, and even the winds seemed to be much calmer today. That didn't make the travel any easier, really. I was still pushing the bike through snow. The cliffs along the shore continued and left me traversing either the soft snow along the shore or the rough sea ice. I was having a good time when the bike wasn't sinking so far it was floating on the pannier.
It gave me a lot of time to enjoy the beauty of the place, though. It was a spartan and rugged environment, but there is a cool kind of beauty to it. I also thought if this place isn't named "Sawtooth Ridge" then an opportunity has been missed.
It was also fun to realize that I am probably one of the few people who has ever enjoyed these cliffs from this angle. In the summer the surf against the rocks must be brutal, and very few people would ever walk this way in the winter. It's a sight that I may be just one of a dozen people alive to have seen.
By the afternoon I was getting a few breaks. The rocky cliffs began to give way to towering bluffs. The snow along the base of these had hardened up in spots as well, making travel easier. I tried to ride a few times but could never get more than about 50 yards before sinking into soft snow again.
When I ran into deep drifts of snow again I found some good patches of clear sea ice. Each one was like a little pond, pale blue and enticing. A few of them had tiny forests of ice crystals growing out of the smooth surface. I could even ride my bike again. That was great.
When the clear ice ran out I noticed that the bluffs above me were no longer towering as high as they had been. I could also see bare patches of gravel along the edges. It took a bit of doing but I was able to haul the bike up one of the snow banks to the top of the small plateau. From there I was able to ride again, for a short while at least. The plateau I was on was cut short by the defile of a small river. Well, it was fun while it lasted.
By the time I got to the end, the sun was setting. The winds were also coming up. It was time to get the tent up and get out of the weather. Once I was all settled in my tent I got my dinner cooked. I even had enough fuel to boil snow for tomorrow. That was it. I was now totally out of fuel. Not much I could do about it, though. The best I could do was try and push on to Tin City tomorrow. I hope there is a place there with a wood stove...
Date: March 14th, 2017
Distance: 8 kilometers
Song of the Day: Fallible - Blues Traveler
The wind has not abated. If anything, it has become worse. The frigid chill to the air and the biting wind did not make getting up easy. Packing up was worse. Everything seemed to want to blow out onto the sea ice. Taking the tent down without loosing it to the tempest was a struggle. I have the will to keep going, to survive the cold, but that doesn't mean I like it. Some days I dream of the warm beaches of the tropics.
Once I got started again I found that I had lost all of the tracks I was following the day before. This left me with no place to ride. The snow was all too soft, the tires just sank into the soft powder leaving me in a hole that I could never escape from. So I pushed forward, literally. I walked the bike down the beach. Pushing through the deep drifts and sinking into the snow. I was alone to endure the wind and cold under the uncaring clear blue skies.
It wasn't long before I came to what I had seen with the fading light of the previous night. This must be the Lost River mine. Or former mine. The shapes I had seen the night before were large metal tanks. At some point they were all tall and vertical cylinders but the relentless wind had knocked them all down like bowling pins. One was almost pushed out to sea, the mooring cables snapped and useless. I don't know if the tanks were for water or fuel. Either way, it wasn't the shelter I had wanted last night. There was, however, a cabin close by. It was pretty run down so I don't know if it would have had a wood stove, but it might have gotten me out of the wind. I always seem to miss places by just a mile or so.
The beach and river mouth were strewn with artifacts and detritus of the former mining operation, all of it derelict and neglected. The red rust contrasted sharply with white snow and blue sky. The whole effect was to make Lost River feel even more remote and out of touch than the wilderness had seemed. People had been here, but the land was too harsh to be sustained. All of the objects were abandoned as too costly to salvage, the barrels left behind like silent witnesses of this forsaken place. I also didn't want to think too hard about what nasty chemicals might be lurking out here...
Just beyond the mine I got to do the first and only real riding of the day. The land around here forms steep gravel bluffs, cliffs almost, just inland from the beach. During the summer these must be quite steep. In the winter, the winds blow the snow from the tops of these and it piles up in the lee giving the banks a more oblique shape. Right at the edge the wind had blown the snow away down to the dirt and the frozen gravel was solid enough for good riding. It was somewhat tricky though. The junction between dirt and snow usually hid a deep void. Putting a wheel off the gravel would send it down into the gap and cast me down the slope. The wind gusts trying to force me out that way didn't help. Still, I was happy to be able to actually ride. It gave me hope that I might be able to really cruise sometime today.
That didn't last long. Soon the bluffs ended in a jagged and rocky mountain. Looking further, this was just one in a series of sawtooth crags and peaks towering above me. There was no possible way to travel along there and I was left, once again, with nowhere else to go but out on the sea ice.
That wasn't good, especially since traveling that way was just barely possible. Between Brevig Mission and Teller the ice was a smooth field, with thick snow on the ice. Here the ice was crushed and stacked up over itself. All of it was covered with the same thick layer of snow. This prevented riding or even pushing the bike very effectively. I had to pull the bike along through deep drifts of snow and across piles of ice. Even worse, the snow often hid holes or cracks that would swallow one of my legs. Don't worry, I was never in danger of falling into any actual water. The ice is too thick here. But it sure doesn't make a fun way to travel.
I just kept going. My optimism was still in high gear. I kept thinking that the agony would end just around the next point. I went around one prominence and then another. The sun was setting as I rounded the second. When I got there I found yet more crags and cliffs, as far as I could see in the fading light. It was fairly discouraging. I set up my tent close enough to the shore to keep some of the wind down but far enough that I hoped I wouldn't be crushed by an avalanche or rock slide. The need for such precautions sometimes makes me wonder about my own sanity.
Date: March 13th, 2017
Distance: 30 kilometers
Song of the Day: Gone for Good - The Shins
Today I came up with a new plan. After the failed attempt to get on a plane I realized that I wasn't going to be able to get out to Wales that way. Or at least, I'd have to go back to Nome to do it. So I explored the option of traveling out on the sea ice. I had come over from Teller that way, why not just take that going to to Wales? At least I couldn't get lost. So, that's what I did this morning. I got up just as the sun was rising and took to the ice. I could even ride on most of it. I had to follow the few snow machine tracks going my way, which is more difficult than you would think. If I put a tire off the track my bike would sink into the soft snow. It was like riding on logs for the entire day.
The wind, which for once wasn't in my face, was throwing fingers of snow across the trail. It really has a crazy ghost-like appearance. Riding along felt like ice wraiths were trying to tear at me. I was bundled up from head to toe to keep them from ripping at any exposed flesh. My only issue was stopping to eat. Pulling back my mask to put in food and water hurt. I would take a bite or sip of water and put the mask back. I have always joked that Alaska in the winter is always trying to kill you, but it has never felt more true to me than in this place. Being out here, I'm just awe struck by how brutal the power of nature is.
That's not to say I was having a bad time. In spite of the harsh conditions, or maybe even because of them, the whole landscape was beautiful. The mountains ahead of me were gleaming white in the sun. The snow was sharply sculpted by the wind. Driftwood, pale grey like bleached bones, washed up on the shore. This place may be wild and tough, but it's also gorgeous.
That's how the whole day went. Nothing fast. Often pulling the bike out of snow drifts. Eventually the sun began to set and I saw what I thought might be a couple of cabins up ahead. I couldn't tell quite how far, though. I pushed on until things got dark, until I couldn't see anything in the distance but a few rock piles. So I just set up my tent to sleep in. I did my best to set it out of the wind, but that wasn't easy. The wind howled around me the whole night.
Date: March 12th, 2017
Distance: Still Stuck
Exciting news! The weather for Wales opened up. I was able to confirm a flight was coming in today and heading out there. I got all packed up and headed to the airfield. When the plane landed the pilot got out and took one look at the bike and said, "I can take you but not the bike." I tried to say I could pull it apart, but he just shook his head. The plane was packed with stuff higher than the windows. Since Wales hadn't had a flight in three days they were crammed with all the stuff they could carry. Damn. I guess I'm in for one more night here in Brevig, and I'll have to think up a new plan.