By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor
Editor’s Note: We previously covered Jeff Rowland’s quest to complete the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail, which extends 3,000 miles from Canada to the U.S./Mexico border. You can find the first story from 2018 here and the second story from 2019 here.
Jeff Rowland’s latest bikepacking adventure was a detour of sorts. But as far as detours go, his ride through the barren Alaskan wilderness turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime.
Rowland originally intended to tackle the final leg of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route before moving on to other adventures. In fact, he picked up where he left off during the summer of 2020 intent on riding his mountain bike all the way to the U.S./Mexico border to complete the final leg of a three-year, 3,000-mile journey.
However, a freak accident ended Rowland’s ride prematurely. A broken bracket on the front fork of his bike locked his front wheel and sent him crashing to the rocky ground below. The result was a Grade 3 separation of his AC joint and a broken rib. While he yearned to get back to New Mexico to finish what he started this summer, a new challenge caught his attention, and this one came with a sense of urgency.
Rowland’s aunt, uncle and cousins have lived in Alaska since 1972. With his aunt and uncle getting up in years, Rowland figured it was now or never to take a trip up to see them. So he began charting a course from Deadhorse, Alaska, to their home in Anchorage.
Against the Wind
When Roland’s plane touched down in Deadhorse, he walked off into what felt like a different world. The stark, flat landscape was jarring, as was the steady rain that fell on him as he assembled his bicycle, which arrived packed in a box.
“The rainy season up there is in late July and early August,” Rowland said. “I went up there at the end of July. It seems like every day between 2 and 4 it was nice, and then it started raining again.”
Rowland’s first stop was at Books General Store, a right of passage for any mountain biker who embarks from the North Slope. The outside wall of the store is covered in stickers left by bicyclists who have ridden in the remote northern corner of Alaska.
So what draws bicyclists to this particular store?
“The reason all the bikers go there is you can’t take bear spray on the airplane,” Roland said. “You can’t even ship bear spray up there because everything is flown in.”
Armed with bear spray, Rowland began his soggy journey along the Dalton Highway, a dirt road built for the purpose of allowing the oil and gas industry to have access to the massive reserves of oil that lie under the flat landscape. Rowland estimates that he only saw an average of one car every hour or two, and there were no trees and very little wildlife during the first few days of his ride.
“I could look left or right on the road and you could almost see the curvature of the earth,” he said.
Rowland’s most constant companion was the Alaskan Pipeline, which runs along the side of Dalton Highway, continuing south for 800 miles. At the end of the first day, he camped by the side of the road.
Day 2 brought more rain, which meant more mud. It got so bad at one point that Rowland had to stop and push his bike because mud had virtually locked up his wheels and coated his chain. At this point, the first in a series of Good Samaritans arrived on the scene and helped Rowland get the bike cleaned and back into working order.
By the end of the day, the flat landscape had given way to the Brooks Mountain Range. Rowland made his way through howling winds as he navigated the Atigun Pass, which he considers a highlight of the trip despite the storm that passed over him during that leg of his journey. With gusts approaching 50 miles an hour, Rowland actually had to push his bike downhill at one point until the wind subsided.
The trees started appearing on Day 3, and the sunshine finally showed itself in the afternoon. Both of these developments were a harbinger of good things to come.
Arriving in Coldfoot was a wonderful feeling for Rowland, who had been mostly isolated during the first two days of his trip.
“I literally had nothing for 500 miles except for that one place in the Yukon,” he said.
He replenished his food supply in Coldfoot since he would be facing 240 more miles of rugged countryside once he left the small town. Rowland’s visit was brightened up by a stop at a restaurant in Coldfoot where his waitress happened to be from Tennessee.
Rowland arrived at the Yukon River on Day 5, another highlight of his trip. As he reached the river, he stopped to pick up some food since he was running low again. As he made his way to the store, he saw seven young women walking out of the Yukon River, and they were full of questions.
“They had been kayaking on the river for 37 days, and I was the first person they had run into,” Rowland said. “It was kind of funny – it was during the Olympics, and none of them knew the outcome of the Olympics, so they were asking me all these questions.”
Late in the day, Rowland’s trip almost came to a premature conclusion when a part on his pedal broke. He had to hitchhike into Fairbanks, where he was very fortunate to find the part he needed to repair his bike. After finishing a 414-mile stint on the Dalton Highway, Rowland eventually made his way to the Denali Highway, which ended up being another memorable stretch of his journey.
After seeing the beautiful sites of Summit Lake and the Gulkana Glacier, Rowland settled in for a 130-mile journey on the Denali Highway. Like the Dalton, the Denali was a dirt road, which provided seclusion and more natural beauty than his camera was able to capture.
The price of seclusion is a lack of conveniences many of us take for granted. Rowland had to mail himself supplies before he left Tennessee and pick them up along the way. His preparation was thorough, but the rain slowed him down enough that he was running low on food again in the middle of nowhere on Day 9 of his journey.
That’s when Rowland happened upon three wonderful ladies camping along the side of the road.
“They were nice enough to let me warm up next to their fire,” he said. “They made me a steak and gave me crackers and cheese. They really saved my life that day.”
In this case, the northern hospitality Rowland encountered was raised in the south. One of the women was from Tennessee, another from Georgia and the third from West Virginia. But Rowland marveled at how friendly and helpful everyone in Alaska was. More often than not, the cars he encountered stopped and offered him water, and help was never farther away than the next human being he ran into.
“It was amazing how when you go out to a place like that, you’re at the limit, so everyone kind of keeps an eye on each other,” Rowland said
End of the Road
At the end of Day 9, Rowland came to the end of the Denali Highway and met up with his relatives in Cantwell. While he intended to ride all the way to Anchorage, the rain and increasing traffic as he traveled south finally led to Rowland’s decision to see the rest of Alaska from the comfort of a warm, dry RV.
He wrapped up his trip seeing sites in Anchorage, Homer Whittier and points between.
Rowland is already contemplating his next adventure, a thousand-mile journey along the BC trail in British Columbia, Canada. But first, he’s planning to take care of some unfinished business.
“I’m dying to go back to New Mexico,” he said. “I only have 400 miles left.”