Friday, May 28, 2010

The Great Hot North, part 2

Cyclists are prone to wedging themselves into groups. I am not immune to this tendency, this need to define myself as a cyclist. Am I a mountain biker? Well, not entirely; I ride a lot of pavement. Am I a snow biker? Only in the winter, and even then, only part of the time. Am I a bike commuter? No; I do use my bike frequently to do errands. When I had a job, I rode it occasionally to work; but I still own a car, and I don't make a lifestyle out of commuting. Am I an endurance racer? No; I enter races because they make for fun rides, and train for them because I like to ride, but I haven't been in structured training since I stumbled off the Great Divide nearly a year ago. So what am I? I am a cyclist. This I know.

I often refer to myself as a "bicycle tourist." To me, this means I travel around on my bicycle. Sometimes I travel overnight, sometimes I travel long distances in a day, and sometimes I travel short distances to somewhere completely new to me. I prefer places off the beaten path, places I generally know very little about beforehand, places remote and rugged that require a mountain bike or its even burlier cousin, the snow bike. I like to define myself as a "bike explorer," even if I am only discovering things for myself.


So when I am visiting a new city, like Fairbanks, I like to sniff out unique and therefore interesting routes. This is a strange practice, because all of the biking in Fairbanks is new to me. There are tons of great established singletrack trails here. I have even dabbled in some of them during my short time here (Skarland Ski Trail, Secret Trail, and the UAF trail system.) But when I am alone and have a few quality afternoon hours to spend exploring, I like to set out toward something like the Circle-Fairbanks Trail. It's an old Athabaskan overland route to the Yukon River. I learned of its existence while scanning the Alaska gazetteer before my trip north. It is listed as a "hiking trail, unmaintained." It runs many dozens of miles partially parallel to the Steese Highway. Is it marked? I don't know! Is it still a distinguishable trail? I don't know! Is it overgrown? Boggy? Bikeable at all? I don't know! Let's go find out!

I started at Cleary Summit on the Steese Highway because I learned online that there was an access point near there. I try not to make a habit out of too much online research beforehand, lest it kill the surprises. But I admit I found and downloaded a partial GPS track before I set out. After all, I'm in the far north, and it's remote out here! I don't want to get totally lost. I climbed to the Skiland ski area and rumbled down the steep tundra of a ski slope (brutal on a rigid bike, believe me) before connecting with the trail. For miles I followed a smooth ribbon of doubletrack as it rippled over hills and through charred black spruce forests. Thunderstorms rumbled from the east and I couldn't stop grinning, because this wasn't just bikeable - it was great biking.

Unfortunately, many four-wheelers discovered this trail before I did and ripped it to shreds. The surface went from rough to rougher, and on the swift downhills it was all I could do to keep the rigid, rattling Karate Monkey rubber-side-down. Meanwhile, the thunderstorms crept ever closer and I couldn't help but fret about what a nightmare the trail must become when the dirt turns to mud. I had already bogged down in several low spots, and I knew if it rained too much, I'd be walking. I kept glancing into the tundra for possible bailout points, but there were none. So I let off the brakes and took the horrible beating that was a full-charge descent, knowing that hands and arms will eventually recover from numbness, but the horror of mud slogs lasts forever.

The trail came to a T; the right turn led to more Fairbanks-Circle discovery, the left veered toward the highway and its merciful pavement. The right turn was tempting but I wasn't about to tempt the weather. I turned left, found the highway, and powered the last six miles and 1,400 vertical feet up the road shoulder. The sky opened up just as I arrived at my car. I took a picture to document my satisfaction at my own impeccable timing.

Who knows? The Circle-Fairbanks Trail may be a great spot for a multiday bicycle tour. Or, as the new wave of bike explorers like to call it, "bikepacking." I may never know, but it was fun to discover a small piece of it. John and I went for a short singletrack ride in the evening. Fairbanks trails are rooty and my hands have just about had it with the rigid fork (I finally broke down and took my leaking Reba shock in to be serviced. No new mountain bike for me this year, but hopefully I can bring my Karate Monkey back to a more tolerable level.) We passed by the UAF muskox farm and spotted a day-old, newborn caribou calf. Isn't it cute? I love being a bike explorer.