Bikepacking the Arctic: Cruel Headwinds to Broken Bike Rims

This is the second installment of Alison Criscitiello’s story of an Arctic bicycling adventure from Dawson in the Yukon northward to the Arctic Ocean.

On the last day of March, we cycled through the coldest section yet, over the frozen Peel River and into McPherson. 

 

But as luck would have it, we were just in time for the Peel Jamboree. We scooted down to the Peel to watch some snowmobile races, and then our pedal-pushin’ legs learned to jig.

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The next morning, we set out across the frozen Mackenzie and Arctic Red River.

Have you ever wondered if it was possible to have so many epic bike adventures that your rim could explode into pieces? Wonder no more. About 20 km short of Tsiigehtchic, Kate’s rim split in two. It had begun cracking five days prior, but (with no rear brake, and one hell of a constitution) Kate bravely rode it to its oblivion. She hitched a ride to Tsiigehtchic, and Rebecca and I rode into town later that day where we reunited for the evening.

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 Rebecca, who had canoed the Mackenzie 16 years prior – a formative experience – took her time retracing old steps through the town. In the morning, Kate hitched a ride to Inuvik, where a new wheel awaited.

For the next two days, Rebecca and I pedaled in whiteout conditions and a cruel, unrelenting headwind. Late on our second afternoon sans Kate, we started seeing signs for Inuvik. We pedaled into town, overjoyed to make it to the end of the Dempster and reunite with our fanny. We also were met by a friend who had flown in from Whitehorse, and would join us for the final ice road leg from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk.

When we left Inuvik, the start of the ice road seemed promising. Would this be our fastest three days yet? We were too smug, too soon.

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After ten minutes, the fast hard-packed snow and still air turned to glare ice and the worst side winds we had encountered yet. We only made it 50 km that day, with some hard falls on the glare ice, and later seeking refuge in a building at Reindeer Station.

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The following day we stayed hunkered down in the high winds. They let up the next morning just enough for us to make some headway.

Slowly, painfully, we spun north on the ice to Swimming Point.  

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We searched the ice road for anything to grip on – small snow patches, areas where the graders cut teeth into the ice, small cracks. Anything.  

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tried not to focus on the ice, on the fact that we were biking on a river.

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We made it to Swimming Point and set up our tent behind the shelter of a defunct building. I sank into my sleeping bag, knowing tomorrow would be our final, and most trying, day. We were too far north to stop before our trip’s destination. The -40 temperatures, the winds, the 80% humidity (!?), meant pedaling without much stopping until we hit Tuk. With heads down into a steady Arctic headwind all day, we inched our way toward the edge of the continent.

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We relied on one another.

Then the Mackenzie River was beneath us no more. We had met the expansive Arctic Ocean; the frozen sea heaved beneath us, kelp and seaweed frozen in time, the signs of ocean life paused.

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The DEW Line and pingos of Tuk appeared on the horizon. We biked toward them for hours, seemingly no closer than when they first appeared.

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At 10pm, as the golden Arctic sun began setting on the infinite skyline. We shed our bikes, down suits, face masks, and stepped into the warmth of a building. Looking in unified disbelief at the sun falling off the curved edge of the continent just outside the window, we knew we had made it.

On our travels back south, we kept with our tumbleweed philosophy. This rewarded us with perfect timing for celebrating at Inuvik’s Muskrat Jamboree, and witnessing the reindeer migrating for the last time across that inconceivable ice road.

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