Brilliant sunshine is burning through the stand of denuded birch trees, one of my favorite things to witness in Fairbanks. It’s one of those perfect late fall days, when the reality of winter is closing in, but the lingering promise of summer is not yet ready to give up hope. When the sunny places feel warm, but the morning’s frost that has rested in shade all day is in no rush to evaporate.
I pause to take a photograph with my phone, but also to rest. I’m on my mountain bike and I’ve just begun ascending Ester Dome and my fifty-six-year-old legs are nearly as much on fire as the sun because they’re tired from climbing the same hill the evening before by a different but equally challenging route.
I hadn’t intended to go riding this afternoon. But the weather forecast is calling for snow in coming days, and I’ve lived in Alaska far too long to let a day like this one get away. Because rarely will the next day be its match. I figure I can make it to the top of the Dome. It's only 1700 feet.
Coming down won’t be a problem.
When I was four, my dad took me to the Goodwill to buy a used spider bike that was my first pride and joy. After a few spills I quickly mastered the art of propelling myself forward and never quit doing so. The spider bike gave way to a three speed, and later a ten speed. My grade school was close enough to my house that I began riding there in first grade. My junior high and high schools were further away, but I kept riding to class anyway. Even after I obtained a driver’s license.
I grew up on Vashon Island in Puget Sound in Washington State, and by my early teens had ridden nearly every one of its roads. Looking further afield, I was soon frequently boarding the ferry boat to Seattle or Tacoma or the Kitsap Peninsula west of the island to ride through cities and rural areas alike. In the late seventies and early eighties, friends and I rode to campgrounds on the peninsula for overnight stays, not knowing that bike packing would one day be a thing.
I rode my bike all through college. And for three long years in Seattle after graduating, I continued riding everywhere. From the University District house that I shared with others, I could get downtown faster by bike than by bus, and often even by car given the city’s notorious traffic. And I’d have more fun getting there, joyfully rushing past commuters behind the wheel who rarely looked happy.
A maze of old mining roads crisscrosses Ester Dome, relics of countless dreams of wealth. Finding gold in this hill has been the goal of everyone from lone prospectors to multinational corporations for over a century, but it’s never paid. Meanwhile, private residences crept up its sides and a few sprouted on the very top, and these days it’s a close-by recreational destination for people in Fairbanks. From my house, at the Dome’s foot, it feels like my backyard, and I have spent thousands of hours running and biking it.
Right now I’m ascending one of those old road beds, and the birch trees are giving way to aspen and spruce. My dog Loki springs back and forth, fruitlessly chasing squirrels and grouse and wondering why his companion is so much slower. He’s the third dog I’ve taken along on my Alaska travels. After a lifetime of black lab mixes dating back to childhood, he's my first sled dog, and his energy is remarkable. These distinctively Alaskan dogs have no lineage papers. They’ve been bred with one thing in mind: speed. They’re gangly critters with skinny bodies boosted by ridiculously long legs and can bound through the deep snow that will soon return. And unlike people, they never seem to tire.
A good sled dog can just as easily come from the pound, as Loki did as a puppy, as from a champion musher. Loki has been spared a life in a dog yard and will occupy the living room couch with as much self-entitlement as the most spoiled of canines. But the trail is his natural habitat, and observing his athleticism while running never ceases to astound me. I’ve often said I need to get him his own GPS so I can compare his mileage to mine. I suspect he averages about 30 to 50% more distance than I log on any given bike trip. And if I stop for too long to rest, he begins barking demandingly at me to get going again. It’s advisable that I do so, if for no other reason than to avoid hearing damage from his protests.
I didn’t plan on becoming an Alaskan or a mountain biker. Both just happened on their own, even if the roots of both extend back to my childhood. Growing up in western Washington, Alaska always factored into the culture. On any visit to Seattle’s waterfront piers, signs of Alaska could be found. Cargo containers heading north, ferries returning to their southern terminus, and tacky Alaskan mementos cluttering busy souvenir shops. As a schoolchild, I read Jack London and Robert Service and felt the allure of the North. Later, during college, when friends returned from summer jobs and told stories of their adventures, they kept the seed alive.
I talked about heading north countless times, but only in the abstract. Then, rather suddenly and quite unexpectedly, it happened in the spring of 1990. College classmates who had lived in Fairbanks for three years came to visit parents, and I met them for dinner. While catching up, I told them that I was working an enjoyable but futureless job, that my apartment lease was about to expire, and that my latest relationship already had. I wanted money to travel, I told them. I wanted to get as far south as I could go. They suggested I solve both dilemmas by coming north. I could earn a lot of money and hit the road come fall.
That night, as I had so many times in my life, I went for a long bike ride and I did a lot of thinking. Truth be told, I’d already made up my mind. But the bike ride helped clarify plans.
Three weeks later I was in Fairbanks, having left Seattle just as it was cresting as the hippest city in the known universe. “What a dump," I thought when first coming into the Golden Heart City. “I’ll bet I end up living here.”
Eventually I did, but first I would spend five summers and a winter in Denali National Park, meeting my wife in the process.
I continue up the roadbed, then turn onto a narrow pathway that’s been worn in by mountain bikers over the years. It used to lead to an old miner’s cabin of indeterminate vintage. I once took a photo of my kid on its porch, holding his ski pole like a sourdough aiming his rifle at an unwanted intruder. A few years ago, the Department of Natural Resources removed it and a few other old cabins that used to be scattered along trails on the Dome. Presumably it was done to discourage squatters. But it felt more like yet another uprooting of our history, something Alaskans are as skilled at doing as anyone else.
From there it’s a steep climb to an unmaintained road. Crossing that, I pick up another fallow mining route, then take a right onto a steep climb on a bandit trail that will put me near the top of the Dome.
The ground is littered with leaves, but it’s dry. On wet days I can blame the combination of wet slippery leaves and roots snaking along the surface of the ground for destroying my traction and forcing me to push up the steepest parts. Today I don’t have that excuse, but the fatigue I felt earlier began fading sometime back. I’m into it now, and instead of planning for a quick ride to the top and back to my house, I’m thinking I need to make grander plans.
My life has centered on Alaska for over thirty years now, and my Alaska life has centered on mountain biking for more than twenty-two. I was still fairly young when I first ventured north, and I expected that my encounters with Alaska's outdoors would mostly happen on foot. And indeed they mostly did early on and still often do. Hiking into alpine country is something I've done many times, and it's something I'll always treasure. What I didn't anticipate those many years ago was that the total hours I would spend cycling, and especially mountain biking, would overwhelmingly outnumber time spent on all my other outdoor activities combined.
But I also didn't anticipate the trails around Fairbanks. My wife and I chose to live here for its proximity to Denali, and for its vastly slower pace and smaller population than Anchorage. And also for the dryer weather. It was only after arriving that we learned that hundreds of miles of trails litter the Tanana Valley, where the city of Fairbanks can be found. Many cross through private property, but owing to easements, longstanding right-of-way laws, and a generally accepting attitude from many property owners about people using these corridors, it's a dreamland for recreational travelers, be they cyclists, skiers, hikers, joggers, mushers, skijourers, or ATV and snowmachine riders.
I took to those trails like I have with nothing else in my life. As GPS units rose in popularity, I started tracking my miles on the trails, and every year they run into the thousands. In summers I'll frequently head up Ester Dome after dinner. The endless daylight from May until early August means there's no real curfew. And even in the shoulder seasons between summer and winter, it stays light late enough to allow lengthy sojourns. As often as possible, I'm out the door and in the woods.
It's become my default way of life. I look back on the urban cycling I did when I was young and it seems so drab and pointless. "Pavement sucks" has become a mantra for me. Even when I ride into town, I know a system of trails that can keep me almost entirely off the roads most of the way. In Fairbanks, a quick trip to buy milk can be easily turned into a mountain bike adventure, with a succession of side journeys beckoning. Where else is this possible?
I’ve often said that riding a mountain bike on Ester Dome is akin to those choose-your-adventure children’s books. You can pursue any number of routes from bottom to top and back again. But it’s good to know the seasonal variabilities. Head down the northwestern side and you will find yourself crossing swamps and a sizable creek. In winter it’s one of the funnest descents in the immediate Fairbanks vicinity, and you can ride out alongside the railroad track. Try this same trajectory in summer, however, and prepare to push though miles of muskeg and standing water.
Most trails on the Dome lead to the top, and today the climb pays off both athletically and aesthetically. The workout has me fully energized, and where the climb seemed daunting at the outset, I now find myself up for more. I follow a grassy four wheeler pathway that loops the north summit of the Dome and heads for an outcrop that marks the final high point before the steep rutty unmaintained gravel road that drops down to Goldstream Creek.
A couple of weeks ago some friends and I headed down this direction to connect with another old road bed that ascends to the southern summit. Like so many rides I've been on, it bottomed out in a swamp. If you're going to be a mountain biker in Interior Alaska, plan on wet feet, wet legs, and possibly a wet torso as you shove your way through fetid water. Or try riding through it, with the bottom beneath your wheels completely obscured by mud and muck. Aim for the far shore and pedal like crazy and don't be surprised when you lose momentum and splash sideways. Mountain biking in these parts can leave you drenched from head to toe on the sunniest of days if you aren't careful.
But up here on top of Ester Dome it's bone dry. I prop my bike in a cleft in the rocks and start taking pictures. Murphy Dome dominates to the northwest, and the White Mountains spill out across the northeastern horizon. To the southeast, the city of Fairbanks, such as it is, appears dwarfed by the immensity of this land. And by the endless sky as well, which is interrupted only by a faint crescent moon. This is the reward in climbing. You gain perspective.
In 1992 I brought my bike to Denali and discovered riding on the Park Road. The long climb up from the hotel to Mile 9 took me out of the forested creek drainages and up to the tundra, where caribou meandered and mountains span out as far as can be seen and in all directions. As you ride deeper into the park, you overlook valleys, cross rivers, climb and descend, climb and descend. And sometimes, when the wind is blowing hard, which it frequently does, riding downhill can require more effort than going up. Rarely have I pedaled as hard as I once did coming down the park road on the long downhill drop on Mount Margaret, with hail stones peppering my face, driven by the frigid gales that were hell bent on preventing me the slightest progress.
This was in July. Summer in Alaska.
In the park I once found myself closer to a grizzly than I wanted to be. It was lounging close to a bend in the road. My riding companions and I pondered how quickly we could retreat down the hill from Sable Pass and if we would be faster than a pursuing bear. And of course we nervously made the requisite jokes about who the slowest rider would be. But the bear was more concerned right then with taking a nap on the nearby tundra than with feasting on a trio of seasonal workers. It barely acknowledged us, and so we rode onward.
Decades after moving to Fairbanks, I rode beyond the Teklanika rest stop on a visit to Denali Park and noticed a large animal just ahead. Wondering who had let their dog off leash, I stopped. That’s when I realized it was a lynx. The sizable feline had by then noticed me and stopped as well. It sat in the road and we stared inquisitively at each other for several magical minutes until a transit bus rounded the bend and the cat dashed into the brush and vanished.
That remains my best and longest lynx sighting, although a close second happened just two months later on a September midnight, after darkness had returned to the North. Barreling down the Equinox Marathon Trail through the woods on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, my headlight caught movement. It was a lynx scrambling across the path. I came to halt where I had seen it cross and turned my headlights into the woods. There it sat, and again I found myself in a staring match with one of Alaska’s more elusive animals. Eventually it got bored with me and wandered off, but I rode home through the night with a warm chill, if there could be such a thing.
I've come close to colliding with moose on several occasions while zipping down trails. Grouse, which almost invariably fly in front of oncoming traffic instead of away from it, have many times come fluttering toward my face, nearly leaving me with a mouthful of feathers. And a scampering fox vanquished one attempt at setting a personal best time for descending Ester Dome Road. It dashed in front of my bike so quickly that only my sudden instinctual swerve to the right prevented what could have been a badly injurious collision for us both. My dog at the time, Sugi, pursued it into the woods. My attempt at a land speed record was cut short not by the wild canine, but by the domesticated one I had to go chasing after.
Only once have I actually flushed out a bear, however. While riding with friends on the logging roads and trails along the Tanana River southwest of Fairbanks, I surged ahead on the winding route. With my fellow riders a couple of bends behind me, a black bear suddenly emerged a few yards ahead. It turned and stopped and stared and snorted. I slammed on the brakes. I started to shout. “No bear! Go away!” My friend Eric pulled up behind me, and the bear, perhaps realizing itself outnumbered, turned away and charged into the trees. The rest of the group missed it entirely. We huddled in close together as we passed through those few yards of trail, hoping against – and laughing about – the bear's possible return. But we didn't see it again. Undoubtedly it was eyeing us though.
When I posted the story to social media the next morning, my friends were skeptical. I mentioned I was at the front of the group and that's why I saw the bear. I'm known among my riding pals as Slow Ass Dave (SAD). No one believed I could have been the in the lead. Hilarity ensued at my expense. But the story is true. Eric saw the bear as well.
After reaching the top and looping the cell and radio towers that seem to be forever self-replicating on this hilltop close to Fairbanks proper, I opt to follow what’s known as the Out & Back, a four wheeler trail that shoots off to the southwest from the Dome’s twin summits. It’s part of the Equinox Marathon route, an annual race in September that sends runners up Ester Dome then partway down this side of it so they can turn around and top the hill a second time. On the best years, marathoners are treated to views of the Alaska Range, including Denali, dominating the southern horizon. It’s entirely out today, and unlike runners looking for their best possible time, I have the option of stopping and admiring this place I’ve called home for three decades, and mountains of staggering beauty spilling out as far as I can see.
I’m not running the marathon, so I go partway out, but not back. Part of the adventure I’ve chosen this time is to go down what’s known as the Gravity Trail. A narrow and very steep descent that pops out on the Tricon Road, which leads to the Ester Mine Road. Most people don't know the Gravity Trail exists. But it's an open secret among mountain bikers.
The Tricon Road was the sight of my first ever mountain bike ride in Fairbanks. My first ever real trail ride.
In the summer of 1998 at the age of thirty-four, I showed up for one of the Fairbanks Cycle Club’s Tuesday night mountain bike rides, led by local cycling legend Doug Burnside. I’d read about them in the paper, and it sounded like fun. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was when my road riding would begin succumbing to trail fever. Before long I was avoiding roads. They're never so exciting as trails.
The ride began at Ester Community Park, west of Fairbanks. It was mid-May, so daylight wasn't a concern. We left the park, headed out the Ester Mine Road, and onto what is known as the Fireplug Trail, the route of a since discontinued dogsled race. We hung a right at what I now know is the West Ridge Trail, a steep ascent that leads to the top of Ester Dome, some 1600 feet higher. The trail was boggy and brushy and generally terrible and our feet were soaked as we did a lot of pushing, eventually arriving at the far end of the Out & Back and near the top of the Dome. We rode that to what I later learned is the Tricon Road, which we bombed back down to the mine site. Twice I was nearly taken out by other riders as I clung to my brakes on a very steep, deeply rutted descent. It was terrifying. It was also gratuitously stupid. And I was back for more the following week. And I have been back nearly every Tuesday night during every single summer since. I help lead those rides now.
It's no longer summer, so today daylight is a concern. Looking at my watch, it’s already 5:00 PM. It will be dark by 7:00. I can head back up to the top of the Dome and be home in under half an hour by road. But what’s the fun in that? I have a headlight and a fully charged battery with me. Loki is barking furiously because he knows going downhill is the only time he has to keep up with me instead of the reverse. And he knows this descent. He has a sled dog’s memory for trails. I’ve always felt confident that if he were to become separated from me anywhere on the Dome, he’d have no problem finding his way home. But he always stays close.
The Tricon road is treacherous, and since I’m alone, I take it easy on the drop. This allows Loki to pull ahead. Three quarters of the way down the Dome he turns onto another four wheeler trail, one that crosses over to the quirky bedroom community of Ester. More downhill fun awaits, but also a couple of brief but virtually unrideable uphills, a creek crossing, and a swamp. It’s a good thing on this chilly afternoon that my shoes are waterproof. Winter is the only time in Interior Alaska that you can go mountain biking with reasonable confidence that you won’t get wet feet. Unless you fall through the ice.
Upon moving north I’d assumed my bike riding would be limited to summers. But soon after arrival I saw people commuting the roads around Fairbanks in winter, and before long had bought studded tires so I could join them. People here ride in any conditions and so have I, although I don’t recommend riding at forty below zero unless both you and your bike are prepared. Human bodies slow down at that temperature, when simply going outdoors, much less moving in it for an extended time, can be an act of willpower and perhaps limited common sense. Bicycles don’t like such extremes any more than our bodies do. Over the years, local mechanics have figured out which lubricants do best in the deep cold, but bottom brackets and wheel hubs still resist movement when the thermometer plunges. Gear shifts and brake handles protest their use.
Winter riding has become something of a global phenomenon since fat bikes hit the market fifteen years or so back. The large tires, operated under low air pressure, roll nicely over packed snow trails. It’s a great way to explore winter pathways that traverse the swamps and rivers that present significant obstacles in summer, but that become superhighways once everything freezes and the routes are broken in.
Winter biking long predates fat bikes in Alaska, however. The earliest gold miners brought bikes and rode them further than I ever will. Especially when there was new ground opening up and the faster one got there, the better the available claims. A few rode the Yukon River from Dawson to Nome when gold was discovered on Alaska's western beaches. Imagine doing that in 1899. Without modern bikes, or gear specifically designed to keep the cold at bay.
Recreational winter riding came later. In the seventies and eighties, as mountain bikes surged in popularity, Alaskans learned that by reducing air pressure in the tires on these bikes, they could travel the more solidly packed trails. It wasn’t long before winter races began to be held, and, inspired by a competitive winter cyclist who had welded two rims together to make one for each of his wheels, local cycle mechanic Simon Rakower speculated that with wider rims than those that came stock on mountain bikes, tires would roll even better over snow and less favorable conditions.
Thus were born Snow Cat Rims, which were wildly popular with Alaskan riders in the nineties and aughts. Twice the width of a standard mountain bike rim, they could be installed on most frames. Riders, including myself, adopted the biannual ritual of swapping out their wheels. Other than the earliest snowfalls in fall and breakup in spring, there was no longer a single mountain biking season.
Fat bikes took it up another notch, and now the winter trails around Fairbanks are plied daily by recreational riders. Two decades ago, trials were shared by skiers, mushers, and snowmachiners. These days, outside of groomed trails, skiers are rare while fat bikers seem to outnumber all other trail users combined. It’s a transition I’ve both watched and been part of. I haven’t pulled my skis out of the garage in years now. Biking is faster and more fun. And bikes have these things called brakes. For an accident prone athlete like myself, this is a major selling point.
The other big change, and one that has been crucial to opening up winter riding, is the advancements that have been made in lighting. Halogen bulbs were the brightest things on the market when I commuted in Seattle in the 1980s, and remained so into the early aughts. But when switched to full power they discharged their batteries quickly. And rechargeable batteries suffer in extreme cold. This hampered Alaskan night rides.
Then LEDs came online, and the world opened up. A headlight that's ten times as bright as the halogen ones I once used can run for hours on a single charge, whereas the old light might have an hour at best before batteries needed to be switched. Cold remains a problem for batteries, but you learn tricks to insulate them. These days my biggest headlight issue comes when I get off of my bike and into my truck to go home. My high beams are much dimmer than my bike lights. Suddenly I'm struggling to see where I'm going.
We reach the neighborhoods above Ester and I’m forced to make more decisions. I can cut up to the Equinox Trail fairly quickly, and from there head home. I’m burning daylight, as Jack London famously put it. The sun is drooping low in the southern horizon. I'll soon need that headlight if I don't hurry. But I also know a fun trail nearby that drops most of the way down to Ester. And from there I can hop the Eva Creek Trail and still reach the Equinox fairly soon.
With snow in the forecast, this makes more sense. A week from now the trails could be snowed in, and until that snow gets packed down, the Eva Creek Trail won't be rideable. And it's designated as a non-motorized trail, which means it won't get packed by snowmachine traffic, which means it might not get packed much at all. I might not be able to ride it again until next spring. This could be my final chance for many months. So further we go, down one trail to climb another.
When I first arrived in Fairbanks, conflicts between motorized and non-motorized trail users were rampant. In those days, before online comment threads became the medium for outraged debates, the local newspaper's letters page saw endless battles over who had the right to use the trails, and in what fashion. It was especially fierce between skiers and snowmachine riders during the long winter months.
Then a curious thing happened. After the turn of the millennium, as increasing numbers of people took to winter cycling, and especially when fat bikes rose in popularity, trail disputes seemed to wither away. As fat bikers displaced skiers, relations between gasoline powered travelers and self-propelled types become downright cordial. There's a good reason for this. We fat bikers need snowmachine riders to pack our trails for us. It's a parasitic relationship perhaps, but it's produced a much needed truce between snow travelers. One that I'm grateful for.
Even in my skiing days I recognized the potential for injury, and that the guy on a snowmachine could very well be the one to come along and render aid. That would leave me pretty embarrassed if I had devoted my efforts toward banning him from the trails (not an entirely unfounded idea; the question of banning snowmachines from parts of the valley was put to a vote many years ago and fortunately failed). So I always chose to share the trail. All I ask is that people – including my fellow cyclists – be safe and respectful. And overwhelmingly, this has been my experience. Oftentimes encounters with motorized users are far better still. They turn off their engines and we talk for awhile, exchanging trail condition information and discussing what a fine day it is. Much better than animosity.
So fat bikes haven't just made my life better. They've been part of an easing of tensions in my community. A bike might have a human engine rather than a two- or four-stroke, but with all its interworking parts, it's still mechanical. So perhaps the bicycle itself provides the meeting ground between the two formerly warring camps.
In Ester, I spot a barely used four wheeler path heading in the general direction of the Eva Creek Trail. Loki is already off exploring it, so I follow his lead. We pop out on what I briefly mistake for the the trail, only to realize it’s a section line. We bushwhack a hundred or so feet further over and find our objective.
The Eva Creek Trail runs through a subdivision near houses, and even crosses a driveway at one point. The resident dog runs out to play with Loki and I pause to visit with its owner and marvel at this last shot of summer before Alaska's winter sets in. It's one of the unique things about the trails near Fairbanks. They sometimes go right past people's houses, and many of the owners not only accept this gracefully, they welcome those traveling through. Despite having a strong compulsion for property rights, Fairbanks residents can be surprisingly generous when it comes to allowing people passage. Many of the trails are protected by easements, but friendliness isn't. That comes from generosity, and the sense of shared life we have in this outpost town hundreds of miles from anything else.
By now the sun is behind the hills, and it’s a race with the clock. Loki and I climb back up the Dome to the intersection with the Equinox trail. From here I have several options that can get me home quickly, but they involve either a bit of road, or else retracing my initial path up. Alternatively, I can continue up the hill to another bandit trail I know about. One that will put me on Henderson Road near the top entrance to the Ester Dome Single track and a super fun downhill. There’s some healthy climbing involved in getting there and dusk is setting in, but I have a light, and the days of summer riding are dwindling to zero for yet another season. So up we go.
I once rode the fifty or so miles from Fairbanks to Nenana with a friend who had strung together a course that followed logging roads, section lines, recreational routes, trappers’ trails, and more. We wove our way through moss and roots and gravel and deep puddles and one of the steepest hills I’ve ever climbed with a bike. I’ve ridden the pavement both ways in less time than it took us to go one way by trail. And burned far fewer calories doing it.
I could not retrace the route on my own if I tried. It was too complex, too exemplary of the nature of trails in the Interior. At one time or another, one person needed to get from where they were to just over there and beyond. So they cut a pathway. Others, coming in from different directions, followed. Over time, travel corridors were connected. But traffic was never heavy enough to warrant putting in public roads. They remained well-used trails and nothing more. And so the mazes of passageways became playgrounds for adults. It’s one of the things that’s kept me here. It’s immediately accessible.
It's been a strange summer in a strange and seemingly unending year, and I've spent a lot of it in the saddle. With a pandemic, political uncertainty, and plans postponed by quarantines and the need for social distancing, mountain biking has been a beacon of normalcy. It's even been a relatively safe means of socializing. Usually when riding with friends, we're far enough away from each other as it is that swapping viruses isn't a major concern.
Today it's just Loki and I, though, and he's blissfully oblivious to a world that's in turmoil. All he knows is, everyone has been home a lot, and that means he's been getting out even more often than usual. He's been all over these trails and knows the choices. He stops ahead of me, at the cutoff back to Ester, and looks back inquisitively. "Not today, buddy," I tell him.
The climb grows steeper. We round a bend and Loki pauses again. A barely noticeable pathway leads into the woods. This is the one we're taking. I turn onto it and begin navigating a twisty single track that will eventually dump me out near the top of Henderson Road. The trail traverses spruce roots, mud, and rocks. It threads between trees barely wide enough apart to accommodate my handlebars. It crosses the spring that feeds Eva Creek, where I let Loki drink his fill and take what might be his final splash in open water for the season.
The sun has now set, but the sky remains lit by it's vanishing glow. I take a few more photos with my phone, and notice the battery is nearly dead, not from use, but from the cold. On my next ride I'll need to pack it away in a pocket under a couple of layers to insulate it instead of carrying it in my bike bag. I try to take a drink from my CamelBak, but can't. I forgot to blow the water back down after my last sips an hour earlier, and the liquid in the thin exposed tube running to the bladder has iced up. These are further signs of summer's end.
I'm able to unclog the tube and I drink deeply, then begin the last climb of the day. The news of the world hasn't been promising these past few months, but right now none of this matters. I'm on my bike and in Alaska, and there's nowhere else I'd prefer to be. So in this corner of the world, all is just right.
Riding has always been a stress reducer for me. I grew up on a small farm, and in grade school I'd escape my childhood frustrations by hopping on my spider bike and hitting the trails the cows had worn into our pastures and woods. I'd pedal as hard and as fast and as far as I could go and sometimes I'd crash and sometimes I'd bleed. So in a sense, I prepared myself then for my adult life as a mountain biker.
Long bike rides distracted me from studies in college, helped me ignore my perpetual lack of money in Seattle, and sustained me through breakups. More than once, when my kids were young and acting up and I was moving towards anger, my wife would all but order me out onto the trail. By the time I got home, I was back on an even keel.
Cycling has also helped me ride through the loss of family members. In early 2014 I spent several weeks in Seattle, tending to my sister during the final days of her struggle with cancer, and closing out her affairs afterward. It was made easier by her many wonderful friends who helped her and welcomed me as family. But I felt hemmed in by the city after so many years away. As one of her friends told me a few days after she had died, "You need to be home now."
When I did get home in late February I got out the next morning with my friend Tom and went for a ride. From my house we headed down the hill and onto the winter trails that cross between Ester and Murphy Domes. It was ideal weather, a bit below zero. The winter sun had sufficiently returned to create a blinding brightness beaming down from the sky and reflecting up from the snow.
Winters in Fairbanks, I've always said, are much brighter than in Seattle. The days might be shorter, the temperatures significantly colder, but in contrast to the dank and gloomy Pacific Northwest, in Fairbanks, the sun can be seen most winter days. Even in December when it's so very far away, it usually puts in an appearance. By late February it's well above the horizon, and it stays up long enough to put plenty of hours on the trail. There's truly nothing like it.
And because seven minutes of direct sunlight are added each day, it's intoxicatingly energizing.
Tom and I rode through subdivisions and then into a stretch of woods along the Dredge Trail, putting us on the opposite side of my house, over near his Gold Hill residence. By then I was sweaty and warm despite the cold, and smiling because we were having good dumb fun. It would be a long haul coming to terms with the death of my only sibling, but from a bicycle I began that process and knew I could get through it.
In subsequent years, as first my father and then my mother died, I knew what to do. Get on my bike. Go find a trail. Ride. And in doing so, plunge into this beautiful place I've been lucky enough to make my home. This is how I've come to know it best. I can't imagine Alaska without my mountain bike.
It won't last forever. My own clock is ticking. It's been more then thirty years since I first came to Alaska. In thirty more, I'll be well into my eighties. I'd like to think I'll still be riding up steep hills and careening down steeper descents. But the reality is, should I live that long, I probably won't. Bones grow fragile. Hearts weaken. Joints quit cooperating. At some point mountain biking, which for me is completely entwined with the place I live, will become too difficult to continue, and I’ll need to quit pretending I’m a kid.
Not today, though. It’s downhill time. I’ve popped out on Henderson Road and reached the Ester Dome Single Track. This is a network of two loop trails (outer and inner) and various connectors that was built with volunteer labor over a decade ago. Busy with young children at the time, I wasn’t involved in the construction, but I try to atone for this with trail maintenance. I always carry a brush saw for clearing deadfall and other obstacles that get blown in. But is should be clear today. And since it’s now just about dark, I will only have my headlight to alert me if something has dropped onto the path.
It’s also getting colder. What little solar gain can be had from the sun this time of year vaporized as soon as it set. And spots like this one haven’t seen direct sunlight for a couple of weeks now and won’t again until late winter.
I stop for a few more photographs, but Loki is impatient. So I put my phone away, pull on a windbreaker, turn on my headlight full beam, and climb on my bike. It’s time to turn of my brain, let instinct take over, hurl down the hill as quickly as I can, and head home. The next time I come this way, it will be covered in snow.