Within the first hour of our five-day bikepacking trip through the White Mountains, north of Fairbanks, we shared the trail with skiers, snowmachiners, one dog team, and a flock of fellow fat-bikers. The area is an oasis for such users, where one can penetrate into the winter-laden woods from the comfort of a groomed trail. More luxurious still are the reservable cabins strung out along the trail network, facilitating long but comfortable trips. For Teresa and me, they were a spring break getaway; interior Alaska gone wild.
Our fat-bikes looked foreign and incongruous next to the skiers and dog team that seem so organic and ancestral in the rolling mountains of the north. The snowmachine has, at this point, joined them as a traditional means of winter travel. Fatbikes are common but not yet accepted as canon, and as we pedaled farther into the White Mountains’ 1,000,000 acres I wondered how our bikes might fare if we got a big snow dump mid-trip. I wondered if maybe there’s a good reason that skis are the more customary winter vehicle. I wondered where all those people from the trailhead went, as we were all alone.
Borealis-LeFevre cabin, White Mountains National Recreation Area
Twenty miles later I propped my gear-laden bike against the porch of the Borealis-LeFevre cabin, the rear wheel resting on the splintered chopping block. The wide rubber and colorful M4 aluminum leaned starkly against the knotty cabin, which looked as natural and timeless as the limestone pinnacles on the mountains. The shovel saw, and axe hung on the wall like the unrefined forebears of finely-tuned derailleurs and mechanical disc brakes. Our bikes might have been time machines that carried us back to such a scene and now waited, anachronistic, for our return to the future.
A sense of time travel is one of the beauties of wilderness trips. Leaving the present behind makes one appreciate the simple essentials, like the pile of cut wood we were thrilled to find waiting for us at the cabin. The White Mountains themselves might be called a simple pleasure. They don’t have glaciers and volcanoes like Alaska’s more exciting mountains, but they still have the air of vast wilderness. The setting sun still paints the smooth, white-canvas hills in warm pastel colors. The spruce trees still swell up and down the hills like waves, cresting on ridges and spiraling back down into the valleys. And the air is still cold and invigorating under clear skies, both blue and starry.
The cold was the biggest consideration of the trip. We didn’t know how cold it would be, and worse, how well we’d be equipped to deal with it, since we counted on finding wood in or around the cabin, which wasn’t guaranteed. It was uncomfortable not being able to ensure our own warmth, and it made the cold seem like a lurking beast that might emerge at any time to tear at my fingers and toes. My anxiety fell away as I laid warm and comfortable in the loft on the first night, listening to logs pop in the stove and slipping into the preludes of dreams.
On Fossil Creek trail
The next two days were clear and almost balmy in the sunshine of the approaching equinox. We rode on trails cut into the deep snow like bowling lanes with bumpers. The sunshine twinkled on the snow around us like so many stars the night before. Clumps of snow tumbled off the branches of spruce trees as they bowed and curtsied as we passed. We shed layers in a similar fashion, warmed by the sun and from churning through the softening snow, but we could not complain about sunshine in the coda of Alaskan winter.
We climbed slowly through a broad valley of sparse, often burnt spruce, towards rockier, more acute mountains in the distance. They began to sprout limestone outcroppings from their sides like mushrooms growing on wet logs. We spent two nights at the Caribou Bluff cabin, nestled in the bosom of the embracing hills. The spruce trees in the valley below the cabin curved back into Limestone Gulch, beckoning towards a dramatic, hidden valley but too well protected by the deep snow for us to explore; a frozen moat, yet uncrossable. So instead we biked towards Windy Gap for the day, then sat in the big window of the cabin watching for the aurora and wishing we hadn’t reneged on packing whiskey. The stars slowly appeared, then a faint green haze. Then the clouds came in.
Caribou Bluff cabin and Limestone Gulch, White Mountains National Recreation Area
The next morning we woke up to three or four inches of snow and more falling. It was somewhat unnerving in light of nine miles that day and then twenty to the truck. We’d only seen one snowmachiner in the last two days, so it seemed unlikely that they’d be out en mass then. We had planned to avoid the afternoon sun, but now we raced further snow accumulation. But we departed the cabin lighter and with lower tire pressure than we came with, and, after hiking up a couple hills, we found ourselves floating down the valley back towards the Borealis cabin. Worry turned into elation as we soared over miles of unbroken trail. It was another incongruity, where we didn’t belong, where we shouldn’t have been able to travel, but we giggled maniacally as we did.Maybe that’s where the joy of fat-biking comes from–it’s too good to be true, like a dream in which you fly. Like some miracle; not walking on water, but riding on it, in a way. We put our faith in our fat-bikes, and they did not fail us. They carried us through the mountains, where we couldn’t have accessed otherwise, and did so as well as skis, dogs, and snowmachines. They are earning their acceptance as legitimate winter travel.
Fossil Creek trail towards Windy Gap
We left the cabin early on our final morning, the embers still smoldering in the stove. It was a gray, hazy dawn, still and quiet except the snow falling. I trailed behind Teresa and watched as she rode across the broad swath of Beaver Creek, her small, colorful shape dwarfed by the sweeping, almost monochromatic scene. She moved as silently as the snowflakes, leaving a five-inch ribbon as the only evidence of her passing. Our ribbons stretched pristinely for some eight miles before a trio of snowmachiners passed us and erased them.
Twelve miles and a lot of climbing later we swooped into the parking lot and started ripping pogies and dry bags off the bikes with the sort of haste inspired by imminent beer. I hoisted my bike onto the rack as if stabling a trusty steed after a good run; I would have fed it extra oats if it would have eaten them. The White Mountains had cemented my confidence not only in my bike but in my ability to take on more ambitious trips in the future. We began discussing next year’s trips over the aforementioned beer in Fairbanks later that day.
Read more from Daniel Smith at smithdanblog