Thursday, January 03, 2013

Snow biking bliss

 In between our overnight trips into the wilderness north of Fairbanks, Beat and I spent a few days kicking around town.  Our friend Joel was vacationing in Hawaii, and graciously allowed us to stay at his house near the university. Fairbanks city life was an adventure in itself. The day after we arrived, the water tank froze, actually froze solid. Since it was also Christmas Eve, Joel's roommate Nathan couldn't get it sorted out until after the holiday. Nathan made a valiant effort by collecting a few dozen five-gallon jugs' worth of water from at a local water station and pouring them on top of the ice (Fairbanks has actual water stations, just like gas stations, where the many people who live off the grid go to buy water.) That and a few small pots of boiling water didn't even make a dent, so we were without running water until we got back from Tolovana Hot Springs. This added to the whole rustic Fairbanks cabin living experience. Also, we helped extract a taxi from a snowbank by pushing on the bumper with a truck. That was fun.
On these inbetween days, I had a chance to explore Fairbanks trails on a fatbike. I borrowed a bright orange 9:Zero:7 from Amy Breen, the woman who narrowly beat me for the title of "Cutest Skirt" during the 2012 White Mountains 100 race (mine was blue and hers was pink; how can I compete with that?) She was bike touring in Southern California over the holidays (this seemed to be a common theme with many of the people we know in Fairbanks. We came up to Alaska and they all went somewhere warm. What gives?) and generously offered to let me use her bike while she was gone. It was a little small for me, but otherwise the perfect adventure vehicle for exploring town. (All of these trails are within city limits.)

 Joel lives on the edge of a large network of Alaska Dog Mushing Association trails, so this was the obvious place to start. On Christmas Day, Beat went out for a session of running and gear testing, and I went for a ride. It was still quite cold in the valley, around 10 or 15 below zero. I got dressed the way I remember dressing to ride in Juneau, and let's just say I froze a little bit. Snow biking is hard work but surprisingly more difficult to stay warm than walking/running, perhaps because I'm working some muscles hard while not using others much at all (upper body, feet.) I got off the bike every ten minutes or so to run, in an effort to bring some feeling back to my toes. On the way back to Joel's house, I met a huge tractor of a groomer that had doubled the width of the trail, and also smoothed a bunch of loose power over the surface. Suddenly my narrow and fast trail was soft and punchy. I took this photo while I was venturing off the groomed track in search of something better. I didn't find much, so it was back to the groomer for a return ride that was double the effort and took double the time. Ah, snow biking. At least it was easier to stay warm.

 My next opportunity to ride was December 28, and I ventured back out on the newly groomed trail that by then had at least set up a bit. While slogging through the fluff a few days earlier, I let a bunch of air out of both tires in an effort to increase the floatation. This marginally improved my handling on the soft trail, but later I discovered that Amy had no bike pump in her frame bag, and Joel didn't have any at his house. I spent quite a bit of time trying to track down a pump, and found nothing. So the rest of the trip I had to ride a bike whose tires were half-flat, probably around 4 or 5 psi. It was still super fun on the soft stuff, but annoyingly bouncy and slow on hard surfaces. I ended up seeking out marginal trails because my progress on the good trails was so infuriating.

 But, wow, the light. The color. The beauty. I found it all so enthralling and took lots of photos. This day, temperatures in the valley were about five below zero. I put on a few more layers to ride but my feet were still cold, and even though the soft tires allowed me to ride pretty much everything, I still frequently jumped off the 9:Zero:7 to run until the blood returned to my toes.

I finished my ride more than an hour after sunset and didn't ever have to use my headlamp. The light in Fairbanks is so great this time of year. Living here would have its perks, which I think would trump most of the hardships. As long as I could get outside for a short time during the daylight hours most days during the winter, I'm not sure I would even notice the twenty hours of darkness. Of course, most people have to work during these hours, which is one of the factors that makes winters so hard. My two-plus-hour ride ended up netting me thirteen miles. Average speed: 5.6 mph. Hardest half marathon ever.

On December 29, I made use of all of the daylight to go for a "long" exploratory ride. I set out not really knowing where I would end up, but aiming indirectly for either the Ester Dome or Goldstream Valley. When a few attempts at climbing the dome ended in dead ends, I dropped into the valley. Temperatures on this day had risen into the single digits. But coasting road descents = brrrrr. Oh, yeah, this is what "road" riding looks like in Fairbanks in December. Stunningly beautiful commuting.

 Down in Goldstream, I stumbled across the winter trail network. Dog mushers make the most enjoyable trails, narrow and winding through the snow-frosted forests. The only people I saw on the trails that day were two different mushers. I pulled off the trail to let them by, watching in awe as their dog teams sprinted past with single-minded focus. I'm not really a dog person, but I am fascinated with well-trained sled dogs — possibly the best endurance athletes in the animal kingdom.

 Becoming more blissed out with every slow pedal stroke.

 And the light. The color. The beauty. The narrow strip of low-angle sunlight that escaped beneath a ceiling of clouds was enough to set entire hillsides ablaze.

 I started venturing off the main trails to explore side trails that sometimes seemed to be no more than a single snowmachine track. The bike's deflated tires spread out over the soft snow and allowed me to ride trails I wouldn't have been able to walk, evidenced by the fact that whenever I stepped off my bike, I post-holed up to my shins. While fatbikes certainly can't go everywhere, it continues to surprise me just how well they perform on marginal terrain.

 If I lived in this cabin I would go snowbiking every day, and be even less productive than now. It's probably good I don't have these kinds of outdoor recreation temptations here in sunny, warm California.

But these few cherished snowbike outings were the delicious frosting on top of a rich and successful week of winter trekking. I can't really express how much I enjoyed our holiday vacation without gushing; I loved every part of it. Even freezing my toes on the way to Fred Meyer had a bemusing novelty. We went to the BLM office to purchase our White Mountains permit, and discovered that even the most mundane buildings around Fairbanks were beautiful in their winter settings — surrounded by a forest of frost crystals that glittered in the pink light of sunrise/midday/sunset. We browsed Beaver Sports and discovered winter gear we didn't even know existed (down-filled overboots? What a great idea!) We relaxed by the wood stove at Joel's house and drank cup after cup of hot chocolate, mostly without guilt, because we were so ravenously hungry all the time from playing in the cold. We visited fun people and slept under incredible moonlight. And the light. The color. The beauty. I can't wait to go back. 


  1. I have always thought of Fairbanks as the most romantic city. I know those trails well. I think your right... it is the light. It is the color. It is the beauty! The days and the nights! Great pictures. I'm sending this post to my husband. I think its time to move back to Alaska!

  2. I've found that returning to Alaska to visit is far more fun that living there year-round. Fairbanks living is kind of terrifying if you think about it. Technology fails and you die. Game over. One can't even leave their pets for the weekend without a house sitter because if the heat goes out at -40, they die. Living here in California is so laughably easy by comparison. I roll my eyes when friends complain they have to scrape a little frost from their car, oh they don't even know....

    That said, I do miss the four hour sunrise/sunset that occurs around the winter solstice. Fairbanks winters are always gorgeous with all the snow, ice fog, hoar frost, and soft slanted light.

  3. Jill,

    You are my best provider of wallpapers.
    For the inspiration as well :-)

  4. Karen, I can see your point, and I agree that full-time life up there must be very tough. Still, I believe you can live independently enough to not be anchored to the "Technology fails, you die" rule. When I first moved away from Juneau in April 2010, my long-term plan at the time was to live in Anchorage, save up some money, and eventually move to Fairbanks. Well, not so much move there as establish a place to store my meager belongings, write in the winter, and have the mobility to travel throughout the summer. My plan was to live without as much technology as possible. Small dry cabin, wood stove with a backup oil heater, no car (or at least no car that I planned to use regularly in the winter). I figured I could bike commute and scrounge the occasional shower — live very simply for half of the year and travel for the rest. Personally, I still think that's the way to go up there. Beat, however, would likely disagree with me. He has different opinions about a lifestyle that amounts to permanent camping. :-)

    You are right about pets though. I love my cat and she'd never forgive me if we moved back to Alaska. Even back in 2010 I thought I'd probably have to give her away if I adopted this lifestyle. There are always tradeoffs.

  5. Matt and I have had this discussion over and over again too. If we went back, we would want to buy a place...but it would be dry. The nightmares of having a septic tank, plumbing, etc. are too much of a hassle.

    But....I'm not sure if I'd be up for a dry cabin. The outhouse doesn't bother me, but having to haul in all my dish and drinking water and showering/laundry at the laundromat would be a pain. Kitty would love the wood stove though.

    Gosh, I'm a spoiled princess, aren't I? :)

  6. I'd be up for dry cabin living for a winter maybe, but longer term I would also prefer running water - with all its complications. A reliable roommate might work, which is how our friend keeps his place running. We're definitely usually prepared to stay put in -40 for a while (most of our outings we bring the 40 below bags and tons of equipment just because we train for those kinds of expeditions) but it would absolutely be drastic to have a major failure (at home or on the road). Still, plenty of our Fairbanks friends love particularly the winter time. Optimally one could just move there for a month or two in the winter ... one can dream, right?

  7. Thank you for these photos! I lived in Fairbanks for almost 12 years. I miss the quality of the light so much. Sounds like you had a great time exploring my old trails.

  8. Thank you for these photos! I lived in Fairbanks for almost 12 years. I miss the quality of the light so much. Sounds like you had a great time exploring my old trails.

  9. You guys are dead on about the dry cabin debate. I lived there, I left, I vacationed there, I moved back. Its a lot harder to do the dry cabin these days. Maybe its my age, maybe I am just over it. However, I would NEVER discourage someone from giving it a go. Jill, you are right about not anchoring yourself to technology in such a way that failure kills you. Pets like sled dogs don't need to go inside all winter, if they live in a proper conditions outside.

    One comment about short winter visits to Fbks, you never really acclimatize. Go up in the fall, and stay there, and by mid-december, 10 below isn't really that cold. -40 outside is very doable, although with travel adjustments.

  10. Fairbanks in winter is the best. Last Christmas I was up there and it was amazingly beautiful. Hiked out to a remote cabin @ -40 and as long as you keep moving (dragging a sled) and dress properly, outdoor activities are doable.
    Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos.

  11. Hi! I'm inspired by your posts and stories! I also put your blog on my page to follow it! I think the nature of Alaska is very much alike as the nature of Siberia. It's awesome! Hope to travel back to US one day...and you are welcome to Siberia, Baikal lake!!!

  12. I'm glad you had a good time in Fairbanks and got a mix of very cold and not-so-cold weather.

    You can have running water and septic in a small house such that it's easy to release the water from the pump back into the buried and insulated water tank. Then just drain the traps or fill them with non-toxic antifreeze, and you're protected from freeze damage.

    Avoid base-board hot water heat--that greatly complicates freeze-proofing.

    The ADMA trails are groomed for sprint mushing--teams run well over 20mpg--so they're groomed to cross-country standards. Much of the 28 mile system is full of tussocks, and the big drag you saw smooths them out by pulling snow into the low spots.

    If you meet a groomer while out on the trail there isn't anything you can do, but if bikers (or snowmobiles) start out on a trail and find they're making ruts, the polite thing is to take a different route and come back after it's set up.

    The ADMA trails are usually plenty firm for fat tires, except right after grooming. Ruts are dangerous for the small paws of sprint dogs running fast (not to mention a skijorer behind them) ADMA spends about $15,000 a year on grooming, and likes having the trail multi-use so as many people as possible can enjoy them.

    My skijor dogs usually get a kick out of seeing something as "odd" as a bike out on the trail!

    A minor correction: Unlike Juneau, the Fairbanks city and borough aren't unified. The city's north boundary is College Road, so none of the trails are actually in the city--they're in the borough (like a county).


  13. Thanks for the great info Tom. I felt that way about the ruts, which is why I ventured off trail looking for a way out. I don't know the trails well enough to walk a side route, and since I was about five miles from Joel's House at that point, going all the way back around would have added a good eight miles to my ride. In retrospect, I probably should have tried it. I did feel bad about rutting the groomer's trail, honestly, and was happy to meet a snowmachine about a mile from home driving in the opposite direction. I'm sure he smoothed it right out before it had a chance to set up. Next time I'd come more prepared with a map.

    thanks again

  14. Jill,

    Getting caught up on your AK adventuring. Looks like beautiful fun. All of your pics/stories are lovely but the top photo in this post is absolutely sick. I love the colors so much.

  15. re: Meeting a groomer

    No reason to feel bad! You had no way of knowing the groomer was going to be out.

    The groomers understand this, too, and expect you to continue. (They feel badly knowing you've gone from easy to hard peddling.)

    In this case, the big drag was roughing in the trail, and finish grooming with a snowmachine drag was planned for later.

    For races, the club grooms overnight since snowmachines often tear things up on weekend nights.

    Next time you're up, there are maps and Google Earth overlays at:



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