Outdoors & Recreation

Over the Hill Bicycling

The author and Hal riding along the Dalton Hwy.

The author and Hal riding along the Dalton Hwy.

I am writing this less than a week before my friend, Hal, and I undertake a 900 mile bicycle tour. We will be pedaling the Klondike Loop where we start at Tok, Alaska and bike to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory via the Alaska (Alcan) Highway. From Whitehorse we will bike north to Dawson City, Yukon Territory on the Klondike Highway. The final leg is from Dawson City back to Tok via the Top of the Word Highway and the Taylor Highway. If we can average 65 miles per day, it will take about 14 days, not counting any rest days we might take in Dawson City or Whitehorse.

I thought I might review some notes I made from our trip last year. We attempted to bicycle from Deadhorse to Valdez, 865 miles. The first leg was Deadhorse to Fairbanks via the Dalton and Elliot Highways. The second was from Fairbanks to Valdez on the Richardson Highway. However, divine intervention shortened our trip to 484 miles, more about that below.

My notes from last year are some “Dos and Don’ts” I recorded in case I was crazy enough to make another long bicycle tour. I figured that, like childbirth, the memory of any pain fades with time, and I might attempt a long tour again. Surprisingly, it took only one year to get into another trip. Some of my notes from last year now follow.

DON’T do your first long distance bicycle tour at age sixty-three.

Biking the grueling hills from Nenana to Fairbanks with a good friend forty years ago won’t help you now. You tell yourself you’ve been biking ten to fifteen miles most days this summer, and you did a trial sixty-two mile run to Nancy Lake State Park and back without much trouble. However, that was without the bicycle being weighed down with forty plus pounds of gear in panniers.

Camping above the Arctic Circle.

Camping above the Arctic Circle.

DO bring your Body Mass Index (BMI) to within the normal range.

Go to the Center For Disease Control website to calculate your BMI. If it indicates you are 30 pounds overweight, you better hold off any long bicycle tours until you get your weight down. Look at it this way, your forty plus pounds of panniers becomes seventy pounds with the extra weight around your waist. That’s a tough haul.

DON’T believe it when people tell you that your rear wheel will be fine with just one spoke missing.

When Hal and I arrived in Deadhorse, he discovered that a spoke was broken on his rear wheel. We called several “bicycle experts,” and they all said Hal would be fine with just one spoke missing. However, 120 miles south of Deadhorse another spoke broke right next to the first broken spoke. Hal’s rear wheel developed a serious wobble, and we decided to get a ride to Fairbanks, get the tire fixed properly, and continue our trip to Valdez from there.

DO pray for DIVINE INTERVENTION when needed.

You have probably heard it said that God looks out for children, drunks, and fools. Well, add foolish old men to that list. At the time, it was disappointing to have our tour of the Dalton Highway cut short by a couple of broken spokes. However, by the time we reached Valdez, I looked at those two broken spokes as God’s way of keeping the tour mileage down to something we could survive. If I had tried to do the full tour of Deadhorse to Valdez, I could have developed a life threatening medical condition, hyponatremia, see below.

DO bring the Pringles.

Despite what you hear, salt is not all that bad for you. That is, unless you have high blood pressure. I added a new medical term to my vocabulary, hyponatremia. In laymen terms hyponatremia means low blood sodium. The summer of 2013 was marked by record high temperatures for Alaska, and I was sweating like a dog (strange saying as dogs don’t sweat). I was drinking plenty of water but not replenishing the salt I was losing through my sweat. When your body detects low blood levels of salt (sodium), it takes steps to stop further sodium loss. One result is you stop peeing, and that is the beginning of a dangerous cycle.

When I stopped peeing my reaction was to drink more water as I thought I might be getting dehydrated. However, I was over hydrated. I noticed my hands, feet, ankles, and lower legs beginning to swell. At the time I thought it was some kind of inflammation in response to the drastic physical exertion I was putting my body through. What was happening was all the water I was drinking and not peeing was being stored in body tissue, hence the swelling.

When the trip was over, I searched the internet and discovered I was suffering from hyponatremia. My first hit on the internet put me in a panic as it said to immediately go to the emergency room. Why? Your skin can stretch as your body swells, but your skull can’t. All that excess water is going to your brain too and causing it to swell, but since your skull can’t expand, life threatening pressure builds in your cranium leading to seizures, coma, and death.

As it turns out I didn’t go to the emergency room, and I came across some bicycle forums that recommended drinking salt water, which I did. Over the next two days I urinated twelve pounds of water. If Hal’s bicycle hadn’t broken those two spokes, thereby cutting 380 miles from our trip, I might have developed a more serious and life threatening case of hyponatremia. Thank God for his divine intervention.

DO bring a business card. You can’t bicycle the Dalton without a business card.

Actually, you can, but you’ll feel lacking. Our first encounter with other cyclists were two young men from Ireland. They were on their way to Deadhorse from Fairbanks. The trip to Deadhorse was the first leg of a 25,000 mile bicycle tour that included South America, Africa and the Middle East. They gave us their business card which pointed to their website (see http://www.thebigcycle.com) describing their world tour.


Further down the Dalton an approaching eighteen wheeler pulled over ahead of us. Our first thought was that the driver was going to warn us about bears on the road ahead. He got out of his truck wearing flip-flops and holding a top end camera. It was obvious he wanted to talk, so we stopped. He asked where we were headed and we told him Valdez. The driver then asked where we were from and we said Wasilla, Alaska. At that response he laughed and informed us that Alaskans don’t bicycle the Dalton highway. He was implying that this is a silly adventure that only outsiders undertake.

We finally got around to why he stopped. He said that he wanted to take some time lapse photos of the icebergs floating down the Sag River which was within sight of the road. He finally pulled out a business card for us to take. It pointed to his website (seehttp://www.twodogsandamule.com) where you can view and purchase his many excellent photos taken on the Dalton. He has some of the best northern light photos I’ve seen. When he gave us his business card it would have been nice for us to have a card to exchange.

DON’T be a pain in the butt.

Actually, try to prevent pain in YOUR butt. When you have been sitting in cushioned office chairs and lazy boys most of your life, your bottom is not ready for hours sitting in a bicycle saddle (seat). The toughest part about our trip last summer wasn’t the heat, exhausting physical exertion, periodic knee pain, nor hyponatremia; it was saddle soreness. On a typical day I was fine for about two hours, but afterwards the saddle soreness would start, and gradually become more and more intense. That pain was the most difficult part of the trip, and something I have to try and eliminate or reduce for next time.

DON’T forget the chafing butter.

Fortunately, my father-in-law (another long distance bicyclist) warned about chafing. Eight to ten hours of pedaling a bicycle translates to lots of rubbing between skin, clothing, and the bicycle saddle. The last thing you want are blisters developing in the groin. Chafing butter (a lubricating ointment) helps keep you blister free in that sensitive portion of your anatomy.

DO have a sociable bicycling partner, especially, if you tend to be unsociable.

Not only does it help with the long days of pedaling and camping, but one of the unexpected pluses of bicycle touring are the interesting people you meet. Hal struck up conversations with people that if I had been alone I would have ignored and missed.

Another benefit with a sociable partner is you get more help. Me, I’m the type of person that refuses to ask for directions when lost. Hal is at the other end of the spectrum. With the hot weather last year there was a lot of flooding along the Richardson Highway. Several of the lodges we were hoping to get a meal at were closed due to flood damage. Except for one lodge, Hal was able to schmooze the proprietors of several flood damaged lodges to at least put on some morning coffee for us.P6150025

The biggest score Hal arranged for us was at The Lodge at Black Rapids. On the day in question we had been rousted out of camp at 2:00 a.m. by a curious grizzly near Donnelly Dome. Luckily, in the land of the midnight sun, it was no problem loading up our bicycles and hitting the road. However, by 6:00 a.m. we were getting pretty desperate as it was cold and our energy stores were exhausted; we hadn’t had a solid meal since the previous night.

About the time we were the most desperate here comes The Lodge at Black Rapids. I didn’t have any hope of getting something there that early in the morning. As we approached there was no sign that the lodge was open, however, we could see a gal enjoying a cup of coffee on the lodge’s balcony. If I had been on my own, I would have kept on pedaling. However, Hal biked up the driveway to the lodge and asked her if we could get some coffee. We got more than coffee, as the gal on the porch was the cook taking a break. She had just finished serving breakfast to a group of oil company executives who had to hit the road by 5:30 a.m. We went from bicycling in the middle of the Alaska wilderness to eating a gourmet breakfast in one the most beautiful lodges I’ve seen in Alaska.

We will see how well last year’s notes help for our fast approaching Klondike Loop tour. I’ll probably have some more Dos and Don’ts to add to my list. I’ll give you an update next month.


Story by Daniel L. Rey

Categories: Outdoors & Recreation

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