Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Great Hot North

I am in Fairbanks for a brief biking and lounging trip. I was hoping to do a three-day combo dirt/pavement bikepacking trip, but other obligations require that I stay within cell phone range. I decided to come up to Fairbanks anyway to visit some friends and check out the riding around town. My friends think it's a funny destination. "No one in Anchorage comes up to Fairbanks to ride bikes," they told me. It's true that Fairbanks has large, rolling hills instead of craggy mountains, and it's either dusty or boggy with great black clouds of mosquitoes. But then thunderstorms roll in from the south and fill the expansive sky with color, and the rich green birch leaves flutter in the breeze, and the hills roll toward the remote and wild horizons of Alaska's deep Interior. It's a beautiful place. It reminds me of my time riding the Great Divide through southern Montana. I like it here.

The first night I arrived in town, my friend and I sat near the deck chatting away for hours. The sun drifted lazily toward the horizon, casting streaks of bronze light over the tree branches in the yard. A bright sort of twilight followed and then, in an unnoticed span of time that felt like an instant, the hints of light returned. I glanced at the clock. It was well after 2 a.m. Night is a vague dream here, a nearly forgotten place, somewhere far away. It's summer in the North.

On Wednesday I headed out for what was to be a "short" afternoon ride. The temperature was well over 70 degrees, climbing toward 80. I wiped a layer of sweat from my forehead and smiled at the dramatic climate of this place. The last time I visited Fairbanks, it dropped to 25 below zero F, more than 100 degrees colder. That was only two months ago.

I coasted down the long hill from my friend's house and found the trail marker for the Equinox Marathon, a trail marathon that's held every year in the beginning of autumn. I followed the root-clogged doubletrack as it began to climb steeply up the Ester Dome, a deceivingly large "hill" that actually rises nearly 2,000 feet above town. I reached the rounded crest and noticed the rough jeep road dropped down the other side of the dome. I wondered if it connected to the developed road I could see in the far distance. I bounced and swerved down the loose, heavily eroded track, losing an enormous amount of elevation but hoping the road somehow went through to Goldstream Creek, which I envisioned myself crossing in a rush of cold, waist-deep water before reconnecting with the road on the other side. Instead the jeep road dead-ended a ways back from the creek. I pedaled over the berm and began to follow an ever-so-faint hint of singletrack that wended through the trees. The ground was carpeted in dry leaves and strewn with deadfall. After hopping over a minefield of dead birch trees and creeping around alder tangles, I knew that whatever I was following was nothing like a trail, at least not any kind of a summer trail. Still, it was exciting, riding my bike through the woods, letting my GPS make a digital bread-crumb trail to follow back as I pressed deeper and deeper into "uncharted" wilderness. I felt like a biking explorer. I held onto the dream of making my ride a loop for quite a while. But the woods thickened and the ground became more mushy and I was doing a lot more walking than riding. GPS showed that rather than cutting a straight line toward the creek, I had made a big, meandering S back toward Ester Dome. So I surrendered to the out-and-back, and turned to face the looming climb in front of me.

It was a rugged beast of a climb, much steeper and harder than the marathon side of the dome. I sweated and wheezed and really felt like I was somewhere back on the Great Divide, somewhere hot, dusty and difficult, and nowhere near cell phone range. I reached the peak and rocketed down the other side, because I was already running late for the "real" ride that I planned to do with my friend, an evening singletrack ride along a ridge above town. By the time I returned home, my face and arms were crusted in salt, my three-liter Camelback bladder was empty, my GPS had recorded 4,500 feet of climbing over 34 miles, and the sun was still hot and high on the horizon for the two hours of strenuous singletrack biking in front of me. It's manic time. It's summer in the North.