SHAPELESS FUL­FILL­MENT

Solo and Un­sup­ported on the Arc­tic Cir­cle Trail

Bike (USA) - - Contents -

Try­ing to out­ride a force-10 arc­tic storm or act­ing as po­lar-bear bait? How about both for Ben Hag­gar in a solo jour­ney to bikepack Green­land’s Arc­tic Cir­cle Trail.

The an­i­mated blue dot on the pix­i­lated com­puter screen mor­phed into pur­ple with an un­holy black cen­ter as the storm in­creased in strength over the ice-choked wa­ters of Baf­fin Bay. In two days’ time, this Beau­fort force-10 storm with 100+ kilo­me­ter-an-hour winds and 30-foot seas would be right on top of the Akademik Ioffe be­fore mak­ing land­fall along the coast of Western Green­land. Al­though the sit­u­a­tion on­board was un­set­tling, the ex­pe­di­tion team thought only of me, their friend and co-worker who, only two days be­fore, set off alone into the Green­land back­coun­try. And I had no idea that this bru­tal force of na­ture was headed di­rectly to­ward me.

The idea was sim­ple when viewed on a map from the com­fort of my liv­ing room thou­sands of miles away: move two wheels from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ along the Arc­tic Cir­cle by any means nec­es­sary. In this case, ‘point A’ would be the Rus­sell Glacier, a tongue of ice ex­tend­ing off the Green­land Ice Sheet, and ‘point B,’ Sisim­iut, the sec­ond largest ‘city’ in Green­land, roughly 200 kilome­ters (124 miles) to the west. Sparsely shrubbed tun­dra, scouredgneiss rock slabs and gi­gan­tic lakes lay be­tween the two points. To sim­plify things, there was a route (not-so-cre­atively named the Arc­tic Cir­cle Trail), scratched into the land­scape by cloven cari­bou hooves and the Vi­bram soles of a few Euro­pean hik­ing boots.

First, I had to get there. Sure, I could have flown into Green­land, at­tempted the trail and left, but where’s the ad­ven­ture in that? In­stead, I would earn my keep driv­ing zo­di­acs, in­ter­pret­ing the north­ern land­scape and keep­ing ad­ven­tur­ous vis­i­tors safe in the land of Ur­sus mar­itimus aboard a ves­sel that had more like­ness to an ice­berg than a ship. I’d work as an as­sis­tant ex­pe­di­tion leader, cross­ing the en­tirety of the North­west Pas­sage be­fore set­ting tread knob to dirt on the Ar­tic Cir­cle Trail.

Ad­just­ing to ship life wasn’t with­out its chal­lenges. Be­ing con­fined to a rigid sched­ule within 113 me­ters (370 feet) of ship with­out the free­dom to pedal made me antsy. I had to be ‘on’ all the time, sur­rounded by en­thu­si­as­tic guests hun­gry for in­sight into all things Arc­tic. My lone re­prieve was on po­lar bear pa­trol. Four of us would head out in sep­a­rate di­rec­tions armed with ri­fles for self-de­fense, act­ing as bear bait to make sure there weren’t any er­rant bears sleep­ing in gul­lies or for­ag­ing be­hind boul­ders. Given my tight liv­ing quar­ters, this solo time on land made me long for more.

UN­KNOWN BUR­DEN

Mov­ing through the Arc­tic is an ex­er­cise in pa­tience. Dogs have his­tor­i­cally been the quick­est mode of trans­porta­tion, and even with a keen arse­nal of Green­landic Huskies at your bridals, hill­sides seem­ingly still take days to pass. Scale is dis­torted by the fata mor­gana, mi­rages of the north. Dis­tance and time be­come ir­rel­e­vant as du­ra­tion stretches. You get there when you get there, one of the many lessons the Arc­tic teaches. Plants grow slowly—a frac­tion of a mil­lime­ter in a sea­son, and with so much space, com­pe­ti­tion is non-ex­is­tent. Green­landic speech is polysyn­thetic, words reg­u­larly stretch 20-plus char­ac­ters long, spo­ken in a low, easy tone as though a sen­tence could take all day to fin­ish. Rush­ing is use­less in a land of per­pet­ual sun. In the ship, with a max­i­mum speed of 12 knots, we were no ex­cep­tion to this nat­u­rally en­forced law.

In Kanger­lus­suaq, I said good­bye to the pas­sen­gers and fel­low staff I had lived among for the past three weeks. Al­most in­stan­ta­neously my ex­cite­ment was re­placed by se­vere loneliness. Af­ter liv­ing un­avoid­ably cramped, I ex­pected the empti­ness of a bar­ren gravel road to be a wel­come re­prieve. But the shift was too dras­tic, too in­stan­ta­neous and too com­plete. I longed for a com­pan­ion to share the bur­den of the un­known.

Kanger­lus­suaq sits in dust at the start of a 190-kilo­me­ter long fjord in western Green­land. The for­mer Amer­i­can mil­i­tary out­post boasts a poorly stocked gro­cery, small air­port ho­tel and a hand­ful of hap­haz­ard shops col­or­fully painted in an oth­er­wise monochro­matic back­drop. I half-man­aged a Skype call to my girl­friend, which promptly cut out be­fore

I gained com­fort from her fa­mil­iar face. I strug­gled to find ex­cite­ment. A large storm was to hit in three to four days. If I pushed hard, could I fin­ish the 200 kilome­ters of un­known and po­ten­tially un­ride­able ter­rain in time?

Feel­ing un­der-con­fi­dent and over­whelmed, I took stock of my food, bought more fuel for my stove and anx­iously took the first pedal strokes to­ward the Green­land Ice Sheet as dust clouds swirled. I had 14 kilome­ters of gravel be­fore the Arc­tic Cir­cle Trail of­fi­cially started. Ev­ery­thing was cold and un­invit­ing. Low shrubs pro­vided a dis­mal mod­icum of color across a bar­ren land­scape carved from stone by sar­donic wind.

The next morn­ing, I shiv­ered in­ad­e­quately un­til the sun hit my tent. Pere­grine fal­cons dive-bombed small birds me­ters from where I cooked my mea­ger ra­tion of oat­meal. A poor night’s sleep left me lack­lus­ter. But as my tires left gravel and tasted Arc­tic Cir­cle dirt, I felt progress and ex­cite­ment that tem­pered my un­ease. I was ac­tu­ally on my way.

The hills burst with vi­brant au­tumn color on the end of my sec­ond day. Deep reds and or­anges of dwarf birch, Scotch heather and blue­berry bushes en­gulfed me. Tufts of cot­ton floated from yel­low minia­ture wil­low trees like a warm, gen­tle snow­fall. With such a short grow­ing sea­son, the flora in this part of the world puts its en­ergy into roots and leaves, so cen­tury-old trees look like baby shrubs com­pared to their south­ern coun­ter­parts. I rode like a gi­ant through the canopy of this pint-sized old-growth for­est, lap­ping in a fast de­scent to my camp­site for the night.

I mea­sured my rid­ing progress in ra­tios. A good day meant a 60-40 rid­ing to hik­ing ra­tio but even so, I en­joyed the changes in move­ment. Hik­ing gave my lower back some re­prieve from the heav­ily loaded pack and the de­scents on the bike were an added boost of speed and an in­stant mood enhancer.

Push­ing, mean­while, came with its own set of unique chal­lenges. The hearty tun­dra brush, al­though gen­er­ally be­low knee height, fought with a de­ter­mined vengeance. Stout, rigid branches grabbed at ped­als, spokes and de­railleurs. Tech­niques evolved and de­volved de­pend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion. Oc­ca­sion­ally, it seemed best to push the bike through the veg­e­ta­tion and walk on the trail while pulling ex­celled near creeks that fed bike-ac­cost­ing tree limbs at eye level. Cliff sec­tions re­quired shoul­der­ing my fully loaded rig and very care­ful foot place­ments.

Bog wrestling was a daily, if not hourly, oc­cur­rence. Days spent star­ing into sphag­num tested my al­ready-strained san­ity lev­els. Any slight de­pres­sion bred thick beds of moss in ruf­fled mounds spong­ing up ev­ery ounce of wa­ter, stretch­ing oc­ca­sion­ally for kilome­ters at a time. I played Rus­sian roulette with semi-dry feet, it was im­pos­si­ble to tell if each foot­step would end in

I mea­sured my rid­ing progress in ra­tios. A good day meant a 60-40 rid­ing to hik­ing ra­tio

a re­liev­ing sigh of firm foot­ing or a dis­agree­able, soggy demise. Ped­al­ing didn’t help, of­ten end­ing with a foot plunged within wa­ter, barely above freez­ing.

Five days into my jour­ney and some­how with­out the im­pend­ing storm, the frozen trail formed an icy snake dis­sect­ing two lumpy moun­tains cre­at­ing a wide val­ley. Crest­ing the pass, I emerged from cold shad­ows greeted by a small herd of cari­bou graz­ing in bright sun­shine. Nib­bling on lichen and short grasses, they eyed me with cau­tion keep­ing a com­fort­able dis­tance. I ad­mired their beauty, low­ered my seat and dropped into a long, tech­ni­cal de­scent, giddy to quickly cover ground. Pick­ing my way down a rocky ridge­line, I could hear a dull, un­fa­mil­iar sound com­ing from be­hind. Three mas­sive bucks gal­loped over the ridge. I mo­men­tar­ily locked eyes but saw not a hint of fear or ag­gres­sion in the for­eign beasts. I let go of the brakes and shot for­ward with the bucks run­ning at my side all the way to the val­ley be­low. Did they see me as one of their own? Had I un­know­ingly trans­formed if only for fleet­ing mo­ments?

In a land of mi­rages and perpe- tu­ity, the spir­i­tual and per­ceived ‘real’ world in­ter­min­gle in a dream­like ex­is­tence. Shape-shift­ing, or iji­raq, emerged in Inuit cul­ture for bet­ter travel—a raven or cari­bou com­pared to a clumsy, in­ef­fi­cient hu­man form, not to men­tion one perched atop a bi­cy­cle. In folk­lore, a man would go hunt­ing, shift into a po­lar bear, hunt seals and even­tu­ally re­turn to the form of a man when deemed nec­es­sary. If only I could shape-shift.

FIERCE RE­AL­ITY

Vi­o­lent blasts of wind threat­ened to tear the tin stovepipe from its fee­ble ply­wood foot­ing. It wouldn’t have mat­tered, I had no heater paraf­fin. I watched lentic­u­lar clouds ma­li­ciously build through­out the day. Storm im­mi­nent. Now I was in a hut that felt like lit­tle more than a lean-to.

This glo­ri­fied gar­den shed was the only thing keep­ing me from the gale which would have surely torn my ul­tra-light solo tent to shreds. I cinched my sleep­ing bag be­neath my armpits and boiled my tea bag for the third time. There would be no go­ing out to­day. I was now on half ra­tions of al­ready in­suf­fi­cient por­tions. Cold, hun­gry and bored, I stared out of the small win­dow at steep cliffs hem­ming in the nar­row val­ley. Frozen streams criss­crossed like icy spi­der webs. Lis­ten­ing to steel ca­bles creak and groan un­der the strain of 100-kilo­me­ter-per-hour winds, I was grate­ful for shel­ter, no mat­ter how hum­ble.

As the storm cleared the fol­low­ing day, schools of Arc­tic Char lined the icy river banks, so thick that I could nearly walk across their backs—a nice­sound­ing al­ter­na­tive to fur­ther numb­ing my al­ready aching, frag­ile and peel­ing feet. My big toes had lost feel­ing days ago from the icy dunk­ings. At first, I didn’t even no­tice the man­gled toe­nail from the river cross­ing. The cold was tri­umphantly sunny, some­how dif­fi­cult to enjoy. Ter­rain fol­low­ing the river was not bike-friendly. So I pushed. Ped­als scratched ex­posed calves, an in­sa­tiable wood­pecker of hurt. I crossed the river three more times be­fore the val­ley opened up. Then I hit my ul­ti­mate low.

I col­lapsed in a crum­pled heap, soak­ing the left side of my body in a shal­low trough of frozen wa­ter. Flop­ping onto the high­est point of moss, I grasped my head in hands.

Empty. This had to be the loneli­est place, inside and out. I was men­tally and phys­i­cally drained. Look­ing up, I strug­gled to find beauty in un­touched wilder­ness en­cas­ing me. Dull, life­less hills were in front and be­hind me. This was not a safe place.

There was no easy way out of this de­mor­al­iz­ing wet­land. I had to keep go­ing. With a part­ner for com­mis­er­a­tion, the sit­u­a­tion would’ve been laugh­able rather than ag­o­niz­ingly hope­less. Leaf­less twiggy branches and a large lake foam­ing at the edges sur­rounded me. This sat­u­rated waste­land of muted color made me sad. If I didn’t move, I’d be over­come by dire veg­e­ta­tion. Con­sumed like an in­signif­i­cant drop of wa­ter and frozen in docile cap­tiv­ity.

I forced open the Dutch door of the hut in the faint­blue out­side glow of early morn­ing as thick rime crashed, cov­er­ing the outer steps. Ten cen­time­ters of snow in long streaks and drifts, lay pasted to er­ratic boul­ders. Cook­ing my fi­nal packet of oat­meal, I wore ev­ery stitch of cloth­ing with wa­ter­proofed feet cour­tesy of used Zi­ploc bags. I packed, cleaned hard­ened snow from my bike, and picked my way through vague hints of trail, oblit­er­ated by snow over sub­tly fea­tured tun­dra. Whether from height­ened anx­i­ety, or an over­whelm­ing drive to com­plete the route, I made good time.

The sky was fear­some. Black streaks rip­pled be­tween a grey cot­ton-ball cloud ceil­ing of high winds. I cinched my hood down, ex­hil­a­rated by the weather. I was alive again with pur­pose, a goal in sight, and the will to keep go­ing. The rain came in sheets, blow­ing side­ways from the sea but I didn’t care. Slid­ing, slip­ping and skid­ding my way from the pass, the un­pre­dictabil­ity brought a huge smile to my face. The ela­tion lasted hours un­til my wheels hit gravel and fi­nally pave­ment. The speed and smooth feel­ing be­neath my tires was as alien as the col­or­ful build­ings and strange faces that sur­rounded me. Surely they won­dered who this strange wan­derer emerg­ing from the east was. Never had a bi­cy­cle come from my di­rec­tion. Per­haps it was some shape-shifter, hav­ing cho­sen the wrong shape.

WORDS & PHO­TOS BY BEN HAG­GAR

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