The only way out is onward

Fatbikes and packrafts are the only way to explore a remote section of Alaska before mankind’s approach changes the landscape forever.

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By Bjørn Olson

On a late July afternoon, we rode our fatbikes off Homer Spit and onto a 176-foot landing craft, a ship loaded with cargo for transport to the remote side of Cook Inlet. Though the vessel had made this crossing many times, passengers were uncommon and in our case, a curious sight. In addition to our oversized bicycles, Brent and I carried one packraft apiece, five days worth of food, plus some minimal camping gear and camera equipment. After an exciting and sleepless night onboard the vessel we were deposited on the far shore of the inlet at 4 a.m. Waiting for the light, we watched the boat unload its cargo and then began cycling the gravel Pile Bay Road to Iliamna Lake in the early dawn.

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I was drawn, in part, to this route because Alaska is in the midst of mineral development projects that could entirely transform the landscape. Our route would bring us through a proposed, controversial, open pit copper mine—the Pebble Mine. I wanted to see clear streams full of sockeye salmon, bears and untamed landscapes, as it has been for millennia, before it is allowed to be transformed—forever.

From the outset of our trip Brent and I hoped to ride our fatbikes as much as possible and use the packrafts only when necessary. When we arrived in Pile Bay, on the southeast shore of Alaska’s largest lake, we met Linda Williams. She was baffled by our choice of equipment for our anticipated route around the north shore of Lake Iliamna and down the Kvichak River (pronounced: quee-jack) to the western Alaska community of Naknek, in Bristol Bay. She flatly told us that the lakeshore would be unrideable. Our hearts sank. Had we been too enthusiastic about pioneering a new bike route? Were we destined to paddle over 100 still water miles in our slow, one-person packrafts? We inflated our boats and paddled away from the dock, tired and a little uneasy about our future. We landed at the first beach we found, turned our rafts upside down, put our pads on them and fell asleep.

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Pile Bay Road is a historic 17-mile route that connects Cook Inlet to Lake Iliamna over a mountain pass. For centuries Alaskan natives have used the corridor for trading. It now serves commercial fishermen going to or returning from Bristol Bay. For a fee the Williams family will trailer gillnet fishing skiffs and other small boats between the lake and the inlet, saving these small boats a long and dangerous trip around the Alaska Peninsula. Fuel, building materials and other sundries are also shipped to Lake Iliamna villages and transported over the road. Pebble Mine, still in its exploratory stage, uses the portage to transport freight to the mine site. The scenic road also served us with easy access to the lake, where we would enter the road-less wilderness and rely on our own wits to find a route through.

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On “bike-raft” trips, knowing how best to proceed is often difficult. It sometimes happens that riding becomes pushing, and then pushing becomes bushwacking with a bike (“bikewacking”). When things become too difficult you proclaim, “This may be faster in the raft.” You disassemble the bike, inflate the raft, stow gear and paddle away, only to find that around the next headland the cycling is perfect and the raft, by comparison, silly and slow. Choosing which method is best can be tricky but in this case we really wanted to bike the coast, so at the first sign of beach I pulled out.

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“Are you sure this goes?” Brent asked. “Not in the least,” I said, but we had been paddling for hours and one can only hope. Ten minutes later our large tires were rolling their way over small rocks, grass, sand, and through shallow creeks—exactly as they were designed to do. After an hour of entertaining riding I proclaimed, what was to become our mantra for the rest of the trip, “Dude, we’re winning!”

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Due to the high volume tires, fatbikes float. In general this is a good thing. If your raft sinks you still have floatation. If your bike falls overboard, all is not lost. There is however, a downside. Traversing the eastern portion of the north shore of Lake Iliamna meant riding in the water, a lot. When the water was knee deep or less it was fun and technically challenging but when the water became handlebar deep the challenge became keeping the tires down. The slightest bump on the lake bottom would cause the front tire to lift. If you were not decisive and quick, the tire floated up like a bucking bull, and you would be thrown from the saddle. For the next two days Brent and I became aquatic cyclists. From morning until bed we were wet from the neck down, laughing ourselves to sleep each night recalling the days ‘ride’.

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Half way around the lakeshore sits the native village of Newhalen. From the map it is apparent that the village is the boundary between the mountainous terrain of the east and low elevation bluff and tundra terrain of the west. West of Newhalen was a beach that stretched all the way to Kvichak River. Creative route finding was officially over. After retrieving our five-day re-supply of food from the village post office we began riding into a new chapter. All we needed to do was put one pedal in front of the other and let the mechanics of our 21st century “velocipedes” go to work. “You should put a motor on that thing,” is a common statement I hear when riding my fatbike in remote locations. I have heard it enough times that I have come up with a quick response. “It’s a two stroke,” I tell them and point to my legs.

Three days later the biking portion of our trip was behind us and we had proven to ourselves—and Linda from Pile Bay—that the lakeshore, with a few exceptions, was rideable after all. I openly estimated that with a little luck we should be to Naknek in two days.

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Our rafts whisked along in the upper Kvichak current. White spruce, birch, crystal clear water, and innumerable bird species inhabited the shores as we casually pulled on our paddles. We often turned our bows upriver to watch osprey hover above the water hunting for salmon. We would wait with anticipation for the huge predators to catch a glimpse of silvery scales and watch them dive 100 feet from the sky crashing like cannonballs into the water—sometimes successful but often empty-clawed. In the still eddies we could spot the legendary rainbow trout for which the river is famous.

Four days later Brent and I were finally within sight of Peterson Point and the road to Naknek, but the headwind was building again. Our muscles were weary from days of hard paddling and dehydration. Brent and I shared the remaining sips of intertidal water from his bottle. It tasted terrible.

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Our previous destination had deceived us. Our map had marked a black dot labeled “Koggiung”, just as it had labeled every other village along the way. We had paddled hard into a storm and against the tide to reach it. Instead of a village it was an enormous abandoned cannery and a rotting dock—well on its way to becoming mud, like everything else abandoned to the broad delta. The lower river had become flat and intertidal. All the water was muddy and brackish, at best. After our long, hard paddle we were hungry and thirsty but could find no source of sweet water. Our only recourse was to bend a piece of sheet metal, place it under the eve of the dilapidated industrial building and funnel rainwater into our bottle. Old galvanized roofing flavor permeated our dinner and tea that night.

The mud, tide and headwinds were a stark contrast to the swift, clear water current of the upper river. My optimistic estimate had been blown and Brent enjoyed every opportunity to lord this over me. “With a little luck, he said. Two days, he said.” We paddled for all we were worth for six hours at one point to make a mere four miles. There was no option for a campsite on the muddy shore, so we just kept paddling.

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With the lingering taste of the brackish water in our mouths we hunkered into our now familiar grind and focused on our last challenge. For the first time we were armed with the advantage of a falling tide. Earlier in the day we had sneaked a peek at a tide book in a fish camp cabin and were now armed with accurate insight. With the ebbing tide we felt confident that these last five miles would be a cinch. “We’re winning!” Brent said. I am not superstitious but his words in this instance were premature and much too tempting for Neptune not to respond.

The headwind built and our hull speed slowed. After an hour we were within a half-mile of our shore and the tide began to run with gusto, generating standing waves through a channel. Wind against current can make spectacular waves but we were in no mood. Our hands locked into a death grip on our paddles. Brace strokes to stabilize the rafts were needed between our trying and anxious forward paddling.

Through my focus on self-preservation I looked up at Brent and watched as he adeptly handled these waves like a pro. It was easy to forget that this was his first packraft tour. Watching him made me proud. He had learned well and was a natural. We were winning. Our rafts finally came ashore for the last time. We had made it from Cook Inlet to Bristol Bay, in ten days, on our own steam. A man hug happened.

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Brent and I both had birthdays on this trip. His came on our first day in Naknek and he wanted to drink beer and eat copious amounts of food. Unless you have experienced first hand the satisfaction that comes from the completion of a difficult, human-powered trip, it is hard to explain the sense of euphoria. “Look,” Brent said sitting on a stool and pointing to a National Geographic map on the wall of a bar. “You can see our route from space”. Our human scale on the map would be microscopic and yet our motes of dust had covered the clearly visible distance. This revelation was gift giving enough.

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Almost any wilderness route in Alaska with a fatbike and packraft is a first and this is exciting. The mountains have been climbed, the rivers run, but here and now we find a fresh challenge and a new lens to look at the map through. It is impossible to know what the future holds for Alaska. I only hope that successive generations of adventurous people can still find large swaths of wilderness to inspire and fulfill the powerful desire to remain connected with the natural world—through whichever lens of trial they may decide to peer through.

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Keep reading

Olsen says he is nearly finished with the film of the trip he has been working on. You can read a bit about it and watch the trailer here.

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