National Geographic : 1997 May
Traveling light means heavy going for Carl Tobin, who lugs his titanium bike up a slope above the Delta River. The team of with grass. Many of the stampeders abandoned their bikes after a few miles. Unlike those simple but cumbersome bikes, ours have oil-damped front suspen sions, 16 gears, and frames made of titanium, feather light but stronger than steel. Instead of shovels and gold pans we're carrying less than 20 pounds each in food, clothing, and gear. Our aim is to travel light, freeze at night, lose weight, and go hungry in a style Carl half jokingly calls "hell biking." Truth is, we can't afford an extra ounce if we hope to make it across the steep sub-ranges ahead: the Delta, Hayes, Kichatna, De nali, Teocalli, Terra Cotta, Biking the Alaska Range Tobin, Paul Adkins, and author sleeping in a floorless tent and Revelation, and Neacola. Avoiding the few paved or gravel roads that penetrate the backcountry, we study topographical maps for obvious routes, never know ing exactly what we'll find. Paul, who makes a living guiding mountain-bike trips in West Virginia, sniffs out the best game trail. When luck rides with us, our path rolls across a silky smooth valley bottom, following a caribou trail incised into the tundra by cloven hoofs, then merges with bear trails as we muscle up a ridge of polished granite slabs. When our luck runs out, we stumble through alder brush as thick as an arm that snags our handlebars, seats, pedals, and, if we're not careful, an eye or two. Except for chance encounters with grizzlies, though, river cross ings are by far the most haz ardous moments of our trip. Stopped now beside the Gakona River, we choose a spot where the icy water splits into three braids. The first two reach only up to our thighs, but the third looks far deeper and faster, rushing by in whirlpools and haystacks. Drownings are far too com mon among Alaska outdoors men, many of whom suc cumb to hypothermia or fear halfway through a crossing. Hoisting my bike up over my head, I swing it horizontally across my shoulders and pack, ready to drop it should the current knock me down and force me to swim the Roman Dial saved weight by using bike tools as silverware. white-water rapids below. With Carl and Paul looking on apprehensively, I plunge in. Instantly the water piles against my chest, shoving me like a playground bully. Digging my boots into the gravel, I turn my body to use the current to my advan tage. With long strides, I push across in half a minute. Carl comes next, his face tight with anxiety. A science professor at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Carl has been my climbing partner for nearly two dec ades. Twelve years ago, on an obscure mountain west of here, an avalanche swept him 1,500 feet down the moun tainside, breaking his legs and wrenching his right knee, which sometimes locks up on him. As a result, every rocky river crossing is a fearful and daunting act. Twice I've watched a big glacial stream suck Carl under, bloodying his face as he fought to hold onto his bike and his life. "I'm always a hair's breadth away from swimming," he once told me. But not this time. Carl crosses easily, with Paul close behind. Shedding our water proof shell clothing, we climb back on our bike saddles and pedal off toward the Delta Mountains, the unnamed peaks draped in the fresh snow of a mid-July storm. With nearly 600 miles to go, we have no time to congratu late ourselves on having sur vived thus far.