Saturday, August 23, 2008

Eric's Lost Coast

Date: Aug. 22 and 23
Mileage: 14.7 and 46.0
August mileage: 485.9

I met Eric Parsons in April 2007, shortly after I posted an online forum message seeking a miracle-working knee doctor in Anchorage. I didn't find a doctor, but I did find a similarly injured, similarly minded cyclist living in Anchorage. We met up while I was in the city during a journalism convention. We limped around town and trails in the Chugach Mountains and commiserated. He told me he injured his right knee during the 2005 Iditarod Invitational and was still struggling to recover two years later. I told him I was unhealthily obsessed with that very race but didn't think my right knee, still locked up after two months of recovery following the Susitna 100, would ever be up to the challenge. I thought I could see a little bit of my future in his past, and it was cathartic to have a new friend who understood the psychological struggles related to long-term injuries. So after I returned to Juneau, we kept in touch.

The more I came to know Eric, the more I questioned whether he was crazy or just extremely, adventurously brave. He made regular multiday, solo mountaineering trips involving technical climbs when his knee was too sore to ride a bicycle. He attempted to paddle his tiny packraft through the fast-flowing ice of the Knik Arm, in January. He quit a cushy state engineering job and opened up a home-based bike bag business called Epic Designs. Then he got knee surgery and after that he really went nuts, with route-pioneering, bike-and-raft combo trips that pressed deep into Alaska's trailless wilderness.

Eric's latest adventure is a bicycle expedition along 300 or so miles of Alaska's Lost Coast, from Yakutat to Cordova. The route, undeveloped and remote, involves strenuous and slow coastal riding, bushwhacking, river crossings, glacier traverses, rafting through ice-clogged open water, the Gulf of Alaska's legendary storms, wind, rain, cold, etc., etc., etc. People have walked and kayaked this section of coast before, but no one has ever attempted it with a bicycle. Last Tuesday, Eric and his friend, Dylan, left Yakutat on their Surly Pugsleys loaded with Alpacka rafts, paddles, camping gear and what I assume must be a lot of butter, and set out into the wild to do something no one has ever done before - ride the Lost Coast. Last I heard from them, two days after they left, they were camped at the base of the "violent calving face of the Hubbard Glacier" and trying to figure out how to get across it. That's just the first of many, many obstacles, some of which may not even be surmountable ... but at this point in time, there's only one way to find out.

Eric is carrying a satellite phone on the trip, which he expected would take two to three weeks, and plans to call in with what he promised would be infrequent updates. I volunteered to post them on his Lost Coast Expedition blog (I know, after this and the Great Divide Race, I should start advertising my services as an adventure blogger.) I wanted to be a part of it because I think what Eric is doing is a truly pioneering experiment in just how far a mountain bike can go. Just as ultraendurance races such as the Great Divide Race and the Iditarod are starting to gain glimmers of recognition from the general public, cyclists like Eric are taking distance mountain biking to a whole new level - off the trails, off the maps, off the charts. Eric admitted this expedition has a high chance of failure - and in my opinion, that's a sure sign of the rare-in-modern-times opportunity to blaze new territory.

And as crazy as I think Eric is, I still like to believe I can see pieces of my future in his past.


  1. Wildly adventurous! Live or go home, eh? My brother used to say that when it was all snotty and gnarly, that's when you wanted to be out there (fishing) knew you were really living then (on the egde).

    I have a question for you, though. Why is it important to "blaze new territory"? I have conflicted feelings about this idea.

  2. The desire to get away? To stand over your bike in a place without little micro-litter Gu tabs in the dirt.

  3. Some people, they just have too much fun. *envies

  4. Jill-
    I used to think I needed a miracle knee doc. Not saying you don't, you might peruse this site for material on the undlying causes of knee problems. Especially look at Steve Hogg's stuff--he believes the knee itself is seldom the culprit. This led me to using cleat wedges ( which aren't as aesthetic as platform pedals but in my case erased decades-long limits in riding..and hiking..and using stairs. End of testimonial. Best wishes!

  5. You know, bless their hearts and of course good luck and be safe and all that, but I really wonder how much actual riding they'll accomplish on this adventure? And if it's hardly any, as I suspect, why even bring a bike along, just hike it.

    It sounds like the two (?) guys who wanted to be the first to traverse the the Alaska range on MTBs. Turns out they were actually in the saddle and riding less than 20% of the time, if memory serves me correctly, this was a quite a few years ago. Maybe someone should shoulder a bike up Denali and be the first to claim they "summited Denali with a bicycle."

    I don't know, maybe these Lost Coast guys will end up riding more than I think, but I say if the bike is more of a burden than a friend, leave it at home.

  6. RKN ...

    I definitely agree with you there. I may have played it up otherwise, but Eric definitely isn't the type to do something just to make a name for himself or be the "first" to do something. He just likes to ride and doesn't mind a challenge. I'm guessing he and Dylan made every effort to determine whether or not a fair portion of the terrain would be rideable. I think you'd be surprised. In my Douglas Island excursions (including riding the Channel side on the beach, not the highway), I'd say 75 percent of what I've attempted to traverse is rideable on my Pugsley, which is not a bad number for coastal riding, and I imagine would be even higher for someone with better technical skills than I. There are a few gnarly portions on Douglas that will probably forever prevent me from circumnavigating the island, but, again, I'm not as skilled or crazy as these guys.

    That said, there's only one way to find out whether a bike is an advantage or a disaster. That's why I admire these guys for trying it.

    Dorothea ... it's great to see you blogging again! Cool that you moved to Fairbanks. I'd say blazing new territory is a core human experience ... whether searching for a cure for cancer, trying to break a world record, or raising a child you hope will one day do these things, new discovery continues to define the human condition.

  7. Jill, thanks for the re-welcome - I'm trying to get some more new/interesting posts up right now. :)
    I understand what you're saying. I was thinking more along the lines of the idea of "standing/going somewhere no one else has stood/gone"...I guess I like to think (foolishly, yes, probably) that there are still places that humans have never, and will never stand: true wilderness.
    Good luck to the guys at any rate!

  8. The, "Into Thin Air" makes me want to do it.

    Concerning your knee. Look for a physician who can evaluate your knee for treatment with prolotherapy. I have had remarkable success.


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