Tales of Alaskan psyclists, past and present

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Duncan R. Jamieson
Ashland University


Jessica Cherry & Frank Soos (ed.)
Wheels on Ice: Stories of Cycling in Alaska
320 pages, paperback, ill
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2022
ISBN 978-1-4962-3247-2

To those of us in the “Lower 48” the title sounds like an oxymoron, and the cover photo of someone in boots, ski pants and a fur-lined hooded parka pushing a bicycle through deep snow looks less than appealing. Even though being so close to the Arctic Circle and battling cold and headwinds that result in windchills of minus 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit in hours of darkness, this is still better riding weather than when the summer temperatures and sunlight turn the trails into swamps and bogs.

Rather than a dystopian novel, this is a delightful collection of thirty-one accounts of men and women, who beginning in the 1890s braved the frozen north’s brutal weather on bicycles to search for gold. Though little was found they continue awheel seeking fun and adventure. I too seek fun and adventure awheel, but I’m more in tune with dry paved roads and temperatures in the plus 60s and 70s. I have ridden in temperatures below freezing on slushy, snow and/or ice-covered roads but not by design. When I’d started out it was cold but clear and sunny, and I had to struggle home to a hot shower because I hadn’t checked the weather forecast.

In her Preface, Jessica Cherry explains how cyclist and historian Terrence Cole edited Wheels on Ice: Bicycling in Alaska, 1898-1908 (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Pub. Co., 1985), long since out of print and virtually unavailable. Cole worked and cycled with Cherry, geoscientist and writer, and Frank Soos, professor emeritus of English, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, who follows with an Introduction exploring the origins and development of the bicycle, including the more recent iterations of mountain and fat bikes. Cherry and Soos decided to expand Cole’s earlier effort when they learned of his cancer diagnosis. Sadly, Cole succumbed before publication, and during the project’s final stages, Soos died in a cycling accident, making this collection a labor of memory and love.

While both the Preface and Introduction are informative, they lack a metaphysical distinction between “necessity” and “desire” for the bicycle. Before the bicycle’s introduction in the mid-19th century, the only options for independent travel were limited to walking or using animals, which required care and food. Further, they tired over long distances and suffered from injury and disease. The bicycle, however, offered a mechanical alternative that eliminated these impediments while offering faster transportation. It took riders where they wanted to go, accommodating their own needs and schedules. With the 1890s discovery of gold in the Yukon, adventurers flocked there in the hopes of striking it rich. For those who wanted to participate but lacked the funds and skills to manage a dog sled, the bicycle was a necessity, the only mechanical option. Later, as the automobile’s popularity spread in the early decades of the twentieth century it offered another means of personal transportation, one that required virtually no effort. At this time, especially in the United States, the bicycle lost its position as a necessity for independent travels, but some still had the desire and preferred the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment that came with the wheel.

When asked by friends and colleagues why she bicycles to work regardless of the weather, she patiently explains she rides because it lessens her impact on the environment, it saves her money and she enjoys the exercise which is good for her health. “The truth, though, is that I simply love to ride. I always have”.

Cole’s original work represents Part 1, cycling in Alaska 1898 to 1908. Cherry and Soos expand the scope with Part 2, which includes tales from the 1980s and 1990s, and Part 3 covers the 21st century. Unfortunately, there is no mention of the interregnum, the seven decades between 1908 and the 1980s. This is likely a time when any intrepid souls who went out on their wheels failed to record their adventures.

For me, until I read Wheels on Ice, when I thought of sport and Alaska Iditarod came to mind. Since there are four essays focused on the Iditarod Trail, an explanation as to its origins would have been helpful, even though this falls in the interregnum. In January 1925, a diphtheria outbreak threatened the ten thousand people living in and around Nome, Alaska. Quarantine, which seemed not to be effective, meant a serum to protect the inhabitants offered the only alternative to a massive disaster, but the serum was hundreds of miles away with the weather preventing a delivery by air. The solution was a heroic run by relays of mushers and dog sled teams, covering 630 miles between January 26 and February 1. The Great Race of Mercy, along with lead dogs Togo and Balto, became legend. To commemorate the event, in 1973 sled dog teams and their mushers competed in a nearly one-thousand-mile race from Fairbanks to Nome. That morphed into Iditasport, a hundred-mile course for skiers to which was added a two-hundred mile out and back race for bicyclists. Describing the mental and physical challenges in “Iditasport 1991” (51-53), Gail Koepf explains why it “is a perfect event for women, an endurance event in which mental stamina is as important as physical strength, in which small size and lightness can be an advantage in floating those fat knobby tires over a snowy trail” (52). In “Iditabike 1987” (38-44), Charlie Kelly, one of the midwives at the birth of the mountain bike, explores the camaraderie among racers. Two competing cyclists leading the race helped one another through the hardships but realized “someone had to win this thing.” (43). Clinton Hodges III, “The Iditarod Trail and Me” (156-167) is a cathartic piece about his competitive spirit, the race and his acceptance of not winning: “I left everything out in the swamps, lakes, and tundra of the interior” (167).

Today’s riders enjoy multi-geared bicycles with improved frame geometry, high-tech thermal clothing, GPS and cell phones. The first purpose-built mountain bike appeared in 1978 for off-road and trail riding. A further improvement, especially for those riding in Alaska, is fat bikes that will accommodate five-inch-wide tires, improving grip and stability on snow and ice. Having none of these advantages in 1896, Edward Jesson went to Alaska in search of gold. When he saw both men and dogs worn down by the weather, he believed the bicycle might prove a better option. In “From Dawson to Nome on a Bicycle” (6-23), he described his February-March-thousand-mile ride in 1900. “The wheel stood the trip in splendid shape and to my great surprise I never had a puncture or broke a spoke the entire trip” (23).

More than a century later Martha Amore, MFA and Ph.D. in English and psychology, commutes five miles one way from her home in South Turnagain to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her essay, “A Winter Bike Commute” (130-135), embodies the joy of cycling at its finest, focuses on the morning commute, which is done in darkness most of the year, and for those of us who dwell in warmer climes, in brutally cold weather. When asked by friends and colleagues why she bicycles to work regardless of the weather, she patiently explains she rides because it lessens her impact on the environment, it saves her money and she enjoys the exercise which is good for her health. “The truth, though, is that I simply love to ride. I always have” (133).

When I was at the University of Alabama I lived about the same distance to campus and regularly cycled back and forth, out of both necessity—we had only one car—and desire—I too love being so close to the people and places I passed. When I came to Ohio, though I live perhaps half a mile from Ashland University, for decades I’ve ridden to campus most days—for me extremely cold weather or snow and ice persuaded me to drive. Instead of going directly I follow a route that takes me into the countryside to give me a twelve-mile jaunt for exactly the same reasons. A colleague in the English department regularly rides over from Mansfield, about ten miles distant. Other colleagues ride in on occasion; when asked why their answer as does mine parallels that of Amore.

This standard response has been repeated from the earliest days of cycling. In his 1887 The Pleasures, Objects, and Advantages of Cycling, A. J. Wilson wrote “I venture to say that there is no recreative outdoor exercise which awakens the finest feelings in our nature to such an extent as does cycling” (60). To cite an example from the middle third of the twentieth century, English civil servant Bernard Newman would spend his summers bicycling through Europe and writing of the experience. Besides the love of traveling in the slow lane, the sales from his books put “jam on his toast.”

Licensed under the Unsplash+ License.

Writing only for myself, would I have done the same in Alaska? I doubt it! Being so far north the cold—well below zero—and the lack of light, the reality is I’m just not that adventuresome, but I thoroughly enjoy how Amore explains being that close to people and the environment more than outweigh any discomfort. While she describes the commuters who travel by car—probably the greatest threat to cyclists, as a woman she feels more trepidation about using an available bike trail, a “gorgeous frozen coastline, ice covered creek, and spruce and birch forest” (171) due to the realization that its isolation increases the possibility of violence against women. Amore recognizes her privilege compared to the homeless huddled in doorways downtown. Despite the economic divide they exchange pleasantries while she waits for the traffic light to change.

Alys Culhane, “The Books I Carried” (179-194) and Tom Moran, “The Magic Bus on the Stampede” (244-251) are equally fascinating but for entirely different reasons. Both authors are committed cyclists engaged in multiple outdoor adventures and both tie their work to other authors. Culhane recounts her June solo six-hundred-mile journey from Fairbanks to Valdez. To carry her essentials—clothing, tools, and food she towed a small trailer; on her bike she carried her “non-essentials”—her journal and a copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, his memoir of his combat tour in Vietnam. With a companion Moran rode thirty-eight miles of the Stampede Trail in Denali National Park to “the closest thing the Last Frontier has to a pilgrimage site” (244). He had read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless’s ill-fated journey from the Lower 48 to Alaska. Viewing himself as an adventurer, McCandless hitchhiked to Alaska in April 1992. Planning to live off the land he set up camp in Fairbanks Bus #142, which had earlier been towed to the location for use as a dormitory for a construction team and then simply abandoned there. Unprepared and inexperienced, McCandless died there in August, likely from starvation. In September a hunter found his emaciated body. I’ve read both O’Brien, using it as a supplement in my American history survey, and Krakauer, both books of adventure and tragedy. Culhane and Moran used them to good effect, blending Alaskan bicycling with two other adventure stories.

Wheels on Ice clearly ends on a high note with Judge Earl Peterson’s “Tell ‘Em About It” (251-264), low-key humor at its best. He has a cycling companion living in the Deep South, and they get together periodically at a mutually agreed upon destination for some riding, this time in the Colorado Rockies. At the end of a day’s ride, they joined several others at a brewery adjacent to a bicycle parking lot for some R and R and “to swap lies and ribald tales of glory” (251). The only Alaskan among the group of psyclists (psycho cyclists) whom all could choose more paved roads within fifty miles of their homes than the total of paved roads in Alaska, he was in his glory playing “can you top this.” While the other riders had stories of dogs, deer and cool weather rides, the judge’s ripostes included fat bikes with studded tires, handlebar pogies, moose, grizzly bears, deep snow and temperatures well below minus 40 degrees below zero. “Rest assured, bicycling is alive and well in America’s trans-Arctic playground, and to survive it all year round, Alaskan psyclists are tougher for it” (262).

Copyright © Duncan R. Jamieson 2023

Table of Content

Preface | Jessica Cherry
Introduction | Frank Soos

 

Part 1. Bicycling in Alaska, 1898–1908

Introduction | Terrence Cole
From Dawson to Nome on a Bicycle | Edward R. Jesson
A Broken Chain and a Busted Pedal: Max Hirschberg’s 1900 Bicycle Ride to Nome | Max Hirschberg
Cycling the Arctic: Levie’s Bicycle Ride from Point Barrow to Nome | H. B. Levie

 

Part 2. New Wheels, 1980s–2000

Introduction | Jessica Cherry and Frank Soos
Iditabike, 1987 | Charlie Kelly
Iditasport Extreme: 350 Miles | Rocky Reifenstuhl
Iditasport, 1991 | Gail Koepf
Hellbikes on Ice | Roman Dial
Biking the Haul Road | Dan Buettner
Pribilofs by Bike, 1994 | Bill Sherwonit
Rough-Terrain Unicycling, 1997 | Michael Finkel

 

Part 3. Wheels Now, 2001–2021

Introduction | Jessica Cherry
The Wind Grooms Our Trails | Daniel Smith
Skagway to Nome | Jeff Oatley
The Government Sign | Corinna Cook
Last Ride of the Season | David A. James
A Winter Bike Commute | Martha Amore
The Bike Thief | Don Rearden
The Killer Hill | Andromeda Romano-Lax
Cryo-Cave! An Ode to Indoor Training in Alaska | Eric Flanders
The Iditarod Trail and Me | Clinton Hodges III
That One Magnetek Time I Jumped Over Five Cars | M. C. MoHagani Magnetek
When There’s No One Left to Fight | Rachael Kvapil
The Books I Carried | Alys Culhane
Going Long, Going Solo | Corrine Leistikow
Physical Education | Jessica Cherry
There Is No Tomorrow | Bjørn Olson
A Positively Memorable Mountain Bike Ride(ish) | Eric Troyer
Back in Alaska to Share the Story of the Roads | Lael Wilcox
Nulato Hills: Biking Musk Ox Trails in Western Alaska | Luc Mehl
Growing Old with My Bicycle | Kathleen McCoy
The Magic Bus on Stampede Trail | Tom Moran
Tell ’Em about It: An Alaska Cyclist at Large | Earl Peterson
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