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.