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The Dalton Highway: Hell-Bent for the Arctic!
With one month and a thousand miles (some 1,600 kilometers) ahead, author Kira Salak pedals for Prudhoe Bay on Alaska's most scenic roads—bears and busted knees be damned. By Kira Salak


Photo: The writer takes in the view of Mount McKinley from Wonder Lake.
BIG REWARDS: Salak takes in the view of Mount McKinley from Wonder Lake.

I would like to know what brings me to such moments of irony: When I am least able to flee, a bear comes. And not just any bear, but the first one of my trip. He is a slow, lumbering giant, a world-weary emperor with golden fur and tiny eyes that squint at me with myopic curiosity. I can't ride my bike or run, having injured my knee, so I stand and watch him in return, though he is barely a hundred feet (about 30 meters) away.

I try to remember what I've been told—that I should move away slowly and make noise; if the bear follows, I should stand my ground. I push my bike forward, its overstuffed rear panniers knocking against my leg. These bags contain the essence of the past few weeks of my trip. Sixty-four pounds of fears and hopes rolled up in the sleeping bag and tent, stuffed between the soiled clothes, siphoned through the water filter into liquid I can drink, safely. I have carried them 800 miles (nearly 1,300 kilometers) across Alaska, through mountain passes and snow, and then 90-degree (32-degree Celsius) heat that teased the Arctic tundra with warmth. Now, four days of riding from my goal at the Arctic Ocean, my body has had enough.

The bear follows. He takes a diagonal path, huffing at me. My moves dictate his. We slow down together, we speed up. He appears casual, as if in no hurry. He stops, he sniffs the air; he stares and squints and snorts. He allows for distractions: a quick rip at a blueberry bush, a detour around some stunted firs. But his course stays sure, with me at the other end of it. I do not have the courage to stand my ground, so I push bags and bike more quickly, my knee swelled like a melon but its pain dwarfed by my growing fear. The bear is about 80 feet (24 meters) away from me now. Seventy feet (21 meters). Too close. I stop to pull out my canister of bear spray. Sixty (18 meters). There is nothing but each moment arising, separate and distinct, with adrenaline giving frantic commands. I obey. I lean my bike against me, holding the canister. Fifty feet (15 meters). Forty-five (14 meters). I pull out the safety pin.

The sound of a car coming seizes the bear's attention. He stops. Raises on his hind legs. Then turns and retreats quickly into the tundra. A tourist minibus comes roaring to a stop beside me. When the bear is a safe distance away, the bus emits a crowd of beaming retirees with cameras and camcorders, trying to get a parting shot of him.

"Boy, it was coming right toward you," one man says to me. He shakes his head, grinning.

I watch as the bear disappears behind some bushes. "Yeah," I say.

"Where are you riding to?" his wife asks me.

I focus on her question. Riding. Where.

The pain returns to my knee, and I start pushing my bike again. "The Arctic Ocean," I say, as if someone else had spoken the words. Somehow: the Arctic Ocean.

Four weeks ago, I arrived in Anchorage with my best buddy, Val. We had the idea that we would ride over a thousand miles (1,600-plus kilometers) through Alaska in a month, traveling the state's most scenic highways—the Glenn, the Richardson, the Denali; then from the city of Fairbanks along the Elliott and up the Dalton—in a kind of S-shaped route to our objective at Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean. We would need to accomplish a mandatory 50 to 60 miles (more than 80 kilometers) a day for the next 30 days. It seemed completely doable. Granted, bike riding wasn't my specialty—I am a long-distance runner—but Val, the official cyclist between us, who gets kicks from pedaling a hundred miles (160 kilometers) in a day, also had no concerns. Everything we needed for the trip we would carry ourselves, and we'd watch the beauty unfold as we relished the physical challenge: a thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) in a month. Perfect.

I'd like to say that I knew what I was doing, but in all truth I'd never toured with fully loaded panniers. (Nor, for that matter, had Val.) We only used rear ones, and my mountain bike felt unwieldy and heavy to me. It wobbled too much and going uphill was a chore. Barely three miles (less than five kilometers) out of town, I contemplated all the miles I had yet to go and felt foolish all of a sudden, like someone who charges forward with the starting gun but never asks for how many laps. Still, I reasoned, it'd just take some getting used to. I had 30 days of trial and error ahead of me.

I'd undergone thorough preparation for the trip, figuring out what gear I would need, what road conditions I might encounter, and whether I should start early in the summer (with the unimaginable clouds of mosquitoes) or later (fewer bugs but frigid cold). I decided on the last week of July, an in-between time that would see me catching the autumnal colors of the tundra foliage just as the mosquitoes and biting flies were making their last stand.

Alaska outside of Anchorage was a joy, one of those rare places that delivers what it promises. We began our trip with a rainbow arcing across the sky, sunlight breaking through the clouds and setting the wet tundra bushes and fir trees gleaming. White-topped peaks rose in the distance, over land that showed no sign of human habitation beyond the highway and its "espresso exits." It didn't take us long to find wilderness in Alaska; less than one percent of the land is privately owned, civilization quickly becoming a novelty. The air had the faintly wistful smell of impending autumn, while the sun refused to set and hovered above the western horizon, granting perpetual day. The ground was a spongy soft tundra, like walking on a trampoline, and the countryside was covered with things you could eat: blueberries, choke berries, cranberries.

We pulled over at a roadside park to camp. A roaring glacial stream the color of frosty periwinkle cut through it, and glowing red salmon leaped and flashed past boulders. It was only our first night, and we had already found classic Alaska. We set up our tents beneath large pine trees, on moss so thick you could dip your hand into it. We put our food and scented items into a bearproof canister and dropped it in the bushes 30 feet (about nine meters) from our tents, going to bed in the broad sunlight of an Alaska summer night.

Those first few days, I felt the giddy euphoria that only travel can bring, as if I were an inmate who had launched an audacious escape from a life of habit and routine. My bike held everything that I needed to be self-sufficient for a month; I wanted nothing beyond it. I couldn't say what was going to happen to me from one day or hour to the next, but that was the point. This world expected nothing from me. My duties to it were outrageously simple: keep pedaling.

No one had warned us about Alaska's mountains or what it feels like to pedal 87 pounds of bike, water, and gear (not to mention our own poundage) up hill after hill. Our honeymoon with Alaska soon ended in the Talkeetna and Chugach mountain ranges, which gave new meaning to the word "workout." Our bikes popped little wheelies as we headed sharply uphill, the weight of the panniers conspiring with gravity to undo every inch of up that we accomplished. I tried out the lowest gear combinations, pedaling fiercely, my speedometer reading only two miles an hour (about three kilometers an hour). We could actually go faster by getting off the bikes and pushing them (three and a half miles, or five and a half kilometers, an hour and great for the triceps), which we did less and less shamefully as the hours wore on. I could only compare riding with panniers to trekking with a heavy backpack. Not surprisingly, cycling has its own equivalent of using a porter, the "fully supported tour," in which a van follows riders and carries all their gear and supplies. I was starting to suspect that doing it that way—the most common form of mountain bike touring in Alaska—might be a lot more fun.

To read what happens on the rest of Kira Salak's grand challenge, including the outcome of her bear encounter, pick up the August 2005 issue of Adventure.

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Photography by Mark Kelley


Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, August 2005

• Instant Alaska: Four explorer-worthy fly-in trips.
Hell-Bent for the Arctic: Emerging Explorer Kira Salak takes the ultimate Alaska bike trip
The Map of Us All: Geneticist Spencer Wells's plan to use DNA clues to retrace the origin of humankind
Stalking One Very Cool Cat: Writer Paul Kvinta searches for snow leopards in India
There & Back: Mountaineer Ed Viesturs summits Annapurna
Pelton's World: Our man on the scene explains why he travels alone


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Related Web Sites

Emerging Explorers
Read a profile of Adventure Contributing Editor Kira Salak, who was named one of National Geographic's Emerging Explorers for 2005.

Places of Darkness
Kira Salak goes to the center of the Congo war zone, where volunteers have risked—and lost—their lives for decades to save the mountain gorilla. Now, as poaching and encroachment persist and civilians continue to die, a tough question is raised: When is a primate's life worth more than a human's?

Mungo Made Me Do It
Salak's aim was audacious: To paddle nearly 600 miles [966 kilometers] down the Niger River, a hazardous journey, inspired by legendary Scottish explorer Mungo Park, that no person had ever completed solo. She was slightly crazy, people thought; highly determined, she knew; and completely alone: in a little red boat, en route to Timbuktu.



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August 2005



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