Stef and I reach the Arctic Circle (Day 114)
When I got up this morning I checked the thermometer hanging on the Boyles back porch. It read 22 degrees Fahrenheit at 7am. I called Arkel, and the lady who answered told me that she had four spare clips packaged up and ready to be sent express post (it arrived the next day while I was away). I then spoke to Kevin, one of the designers who wanted to give me a prize for being the first to break one of the clips. He was real cool, and asked me all about my trip and hoped that the broken clip hadn’t ruined any plans. What plans? I’m even more impressed with Arkel after this experience.
I set off towards the Arctic Circle with two mismatched panniers, eight litres of water and two days worth of food. I was either being really optimistic or really foolish, probably a bit of both, and hoped to be able to hitch a ride all the way there and all the way back to be in Fairbanks again tomorrow night. It was so goddamn cold. The hair below my bottom lip kept frosting up from my breath and I had to be careful not to spill water on my goatee, as that kept icing up too. I quickly lost feeling in my toes, and my fingers, only covered with old, holey Thinsulate gloves, hurt like hell. My cheeks, nose and ears stung like crazy. I figured it was better that my extremities hurt like hell rather than not being able to feel them at all, but before long, I couldn’t feel them at all. My water bottles kept icing up and whenever I was thirsty, I had to stop and smash the ice at the top of the bottles. I stuck out my frozen hitchhiking thumb at every passing pick-up, but it was not until I was 35 miles out of Fairbanks that I got lucky. The bike went on top of two big eskies (ice coolers) on the back, one full of beer. It was two First Nations people, who took much humour in calling me a dumb Aussie for being out here on a bike. They took me all the way to the banks of the mighty Yukon River, where they had a cabin and were going to spend the winter (and they were calling me crazy?).
It was still another sixty miles to the Circle and unpaved road all the way. After about five miles, I pulled into the Hot Spot cafe and got a chocolate thick-shake while the owner (apparently an ex-stripper, she sells “Hot Spot” t-shirts featuring the silhouette of a well endowed women reclining in a seductive manner) told me all about a crazy Italian girl who had passed through a few days before on a bicycle while it was snowing and insisted on making it to Prudhoe Bay. I’m getting the impression that the locals, who anyone else would consider crazy for living up here, consider anyone else who travels up here, crazy.
Campsite at the Arctic Circle (Day 114)
Two guys working for the oil pipeline company showed up and joined in on the jokes about crazy cyclists. I tried to argue and convince them of my sanity, hence the hitchhiking up here instead of cycling all the way, but they weren’t convinced. I didn’t even really convince myself.
I left, but about ten minutes down the road, the two guys stopped for my outstretched thumb and gave me a lift. My bike once again, perched precariously on the back of the pick-up against a cable roll (Oh why, oh why do I never get picked up by people with empty pick-ups?). The scenery towards the Arctic Circle was nothing like I imagined, no polar bears and no floating slabs of ice, just a lot of tundra, a lot of smoke (Alaska had something like six million acres of land go up in smoke this year), and a lot of drunken trees skewed every which way, which they told me was due to global warming and the rising of the permafrost. Now there’s a strange concept for someone from a warm country – a permanent layer of frost, sometimes several feet below the soil’s surface. The sun also doesn’t get very high, it always feels like early morning or late evening.
The guys dropped me off at the Arctic Circle sign, after we had accidentally driven five miles past it (we’d been busy looking at the drunken trees and smoke). Talk about feeling isolated, I felt like I was the only living being for miles. I took the obligatory photo shots at the Arctic Circle sign and happily considered myself the winner of the “Steber Family Race to the Arctic Circle”.
Seeing as I was pretty alone out here, I decided I would do the permanently-sealed-victory sort of nudie shot to clinch the deal. Just as I was busting out of my bicycle shorts, in drives a car with a girl from Colorado:
“Ah, I see you’re well prepared!”,
she said as I quickly chucked my shirt back on in embarrassment. It turned out she was referring to my camera tripod which was all set up for the nudie shot. As she drove off, a procession of other people started showing up, so there was no chance of completing the nudie shot. A small minivan drove in with half a dozen people, including Andrew, a travel guide from Melbourne that I had met on the train to Denali. He was with a group that had flown to Prudhoe Bay and then driven back.
They even had a piece of carpet with a painted dotted line on it, which they rolled out for photographs. So much for feeling alone out here.
I set up my tent at the empty, undeveloped camping sites about a quarter mile from the Arctic Circle sign. Now I felt really alone and also a little paranoid about bears. So I cooked my dinner back at the sign and then put my food pannier in the drop toilet outhouse back at the campground. The sound here carries remarkably well, another guy showed up at the campgrounds, and though he is over 100 metres away, I can clearly hear him as if he was right outside my tent. Richard came over and introduced himself and offered me a glass of wine. I’d been sitting outside of my tent and because I’d packed so lightly and had no entertainment, I was literally doing nothing but looking at the magnificent Autumn colours and waiting for the sun to go down. Richard is a taxi driver from Las Vegas and comes up to Alaska every year for a holiday. He was kind enough to offer me a lift all the way back to Fairbanks tomorrow, very cool.
After Richard headed back to his tent I checked my $5 REI compass/thermometer that probably has an accuracy of plus or minus 20 degrees and it was at freezing point. It was 9:30pm by the time the sun set and by this time I had every piece of clothing I could find on, and even with two pairs of wool socks my feet were stinging from the cold. I crawled into my sleeping bag with everything on, and it was not until 2am that the full feeling in my toes came back. Every hour I woke up with my alarm to check if the aurora had come out. At 11:30pm, I peaked outside my tent to find a thin white cloud streaked all the way from the north horizon to the south horizon. It was possible to mistake it for a jet’s exhaust stream but it illuminated the ground with the same intensity as a full moon. Slowly it started shimmering vertically like a wind-blown plastic phosphorous-coated shower curtain, tinged with purple and red. And then it would change into cloud shapes that moved and stretched across the entire sky in a matter of moments. It’s something I’d been wanting to see for many years now and it was so much better than I expected and really indescribable. It was lovely. I had planned to get up and take a bunch of long exposure photographs, but when it’s below freezing outside it’s very easy to justify that a photograph would not do the Northern Lights justice.