2016 Gratitude: Bjorn Olson

Salsa sponsored rider Bjorn Olson shares a moment of gratitude from 2016.

We continue our series of posts from our sponsored riders expressing gratitude for moments and experiences in 2016. -Kid

Arctic Blizzard

Sometime in the night, the plywood and tin-roofed Gallahan shelter-cabin began to shudder and vibrate. The predicted storm had arrived. The wind assailed the little shack in gusty waves and drove the fine, crystalline snow onto the walls and roof at hurricane speeds. We were less than 10 miles south of the Arctic Circle experiencing the second, and most violent, storm of our fatbike tour of Northwestern Alaska. Cozily tucked into our sleeping bags, we were grateful for making the decision to push onto the shelter the previous evening and blearily doubted we’d be traveling the next day.

I fell in love with the northwestern Arctic of Alaska in 2014. That spring, my partner Kim McNett and I rode the Iditarod Trail from Knik, near Anchorage, north to Norton Sound. In the village of Koyuk, we joined another trail, traveled over the Seward Peninsula and become the first people to bicycle to the arctic community of Kotzebue on a continuous 1,100-mile snow trail. On our flight home, we began dreaming of new routes and plans to return.

Last March, we flew to Nome with the goal of riding to Kotzebue again and beyond, if possible. In the end, we made it as far as the coastal village of Kivalina, some 90 miles past Kotzebue, before the trail petered out and rain destroyed what was left of the cold, stormy spring.

Beyond the stark Pleistocene beauty of the region and often-reliable, and bike-able, snow machine trails that interconnect villages and communities, one of the strongest allures, for me, to this region of Alaska is its people. The Iñupiat have been living in the arctic of Alaska before the pyramids of Egypt were built. Over the millennia, Arctic peoples have developed technology, culture, and attitudes that are beautiful reflections of humility, community, resiliency, and fortitude in the face of the harsh climate. The call of the trail for its own sake is strong within me, but adventure coupled with these interactions is impossible to discount.

Immediately out of Nome, Kim and I experienced the gamut of harsh, sub-arctic conditions: strong wind, driving snow, ground blizzards, and the occasional dip to negative 30. Wild and weathery conditions persisted with regularity throughout much of our trip, and it became the easy, offhanded summarization, once we were back home. “How was your trip?” Answer: “Weathery.”

The morning Kim and I woke in the shelter cabin, light pierced through the single pane windows, and we caught our first glimpse of the white and treeless world being bombarded by wind-driven snow - a genuine arctic tempest. With plenty of firewood and a fresh resupply of food, we congratulated ourselves for making the prudent call of our previous day’s dash to safety. We could afford to sit this one out.

By mid-morning, we’d become used to the thunderous roar of the wind and the nuanced sounds it made as it vibrated and shuddered the roof or whistled through a crack in the window. Around noon a new sound emerged, a distant rumble; hard to pinpoint or identify–and it continued to build. “What is it?” Kim asked. We both held our breath and strained our ears as it grew louder. Finally, a snow machine, coming off the sea-ice and pulling a sled, emerged into existence from the nebulous world of white.

Out the window, we could see a man unwrapping tarps and blankets to reveal a bundled passenger in the long sled behind the machine. Kim and I looked at each other with mouths agape. ‘How…what are they…no way!?’ It seemed impossible that anyone would have been able to navigate the long, featureless crossing from Elephant Point, across the ten miles of unmarked sea-ice trail, to the shelter, under these conditions.

Glenn and Viola Thomas, from the village of Buckland, were on their way to Kotzebue for a city league basketball game. “We finally got babysitters and time off,” Viola said. “I’m not going to miss that game.” I admired her enthusiasm. A one-hundred-mile snow machine trip, in the worst blizzard of the year, wasn’t going to stop Viola from playing ball.

Both smoked a cigarette in the entryway as we warmed water for tea for them. Once back inside, they removed heavy outer layers, sat down on the sleep-bench, and we proceeded to drink tea and share stories. We talked of the trail, the weather, past experiences being caught out in foul weather, and of the uncertainty that lay ahead. When the teacups were drained, they donned their gear and prepared to head back out.

The trail from the Gallahan shelter follows tripod markers across the low hills of the tree-less Baldwin Peninsula to the shore of Hotham Inlet, which locals Kobuk Lake. On the far shore, the trail hugs the coast before diagonally crossing the peninsula, once again, to Kotzebue. Alternatively, in a whiteout, travelers can stay on the shore of Kobuk Lake and wrap around the tip of the peninsula to avoid getting lost.

“We should be fine,” Glen said, as he donned his goggles and shook my hand in goodbye. The storm had already made Viola late. “In the worst case, we can always find our way back here.” “Please, please do.” I said, “And be careful.”

Within a half an hour they were back. “I couldn’t see the tripods at all,” Glenn said. Without the markers to guide him, the undulating landscape looked all the same in the whiteout. “I decided we better follow our track back to the shelter before the wind erased it.” Kim and I were relieved they’d made the decision to return and more than happy for the company. 

“If we don’t make it to Kotzebue by evening, people will start searching for us.” Viola worryingly said. “We can send a satellite email with our In-Reach to a friend, with your parent’s phone number.” I offered.  “Our friend can call and let them know you’re safe.” The little satellite texting and tracking device had saved Kim and I the summer before, and we no longer leave on long, remote trips without it.

In a few minutes, the In-Reach twittered its response alert. “No problem. Will do.” the return message said. With everyone comfortable in the shelter and the families advised of Glenn and Viola’s safety, the stress of the storm diminished even as it continued to rage outside.

We cooked a big meal of noodles and talked well into the night before finally bedding down. What tomorrow would bring was anyone’s guess.

The roaring wind continued to assail the shelter, but it was a cold draft on my face that woke me, as two men entered the shelter in the dark of night. “Glenn, you in here?” a soft voice asked. “Yeah” came the sleepy reply. “Your dad sent us with gas, food, and a thermos of coffee.” one of them said.

In the pitch dark, the men had a soft and sparse conversation – in the typical cadence of the modest and reserved Inupiat hunter. After Glenn’s dad had received the phone call from my friend, alerting him that everyone was safe, he’d come to some of the young men of the village and asked if any of them would be willing to bring resupplies to his son and stepdaughter. The two amorphous black silhouettes that stood in the middle of the room were the brave souls that had answered the call.

“I had to stand up over the windshield to see the old tracks.” Said one of the men, then a long pause before offering, “Hard to find in all this wind.” A lump grew in my throat as I listened to them talk about how difficult it had been for them to find the shelter in the storm, at night, to deliver food and coffee, and confirm that both Glenn and Viola were indeed safe. “We always look out for our people.” One of them said.

A few minutes later the two men returned to the relentless blizzard, fired up their machines, and began the long, uncertain trip back home. 

Since my late teens, I have always accepted the agreed upon wisdom of my elders, in regards to adventure and time out in the country. One of the staunchest rules is to be self-reliant; never require assistance or saving. To require a rescue is to put others’ lives at risk and is often costly. In many people’s minds, adventure is frivolous and egocentric and serves society no purpose.

Listening to the men’s machines fade into the storm I realized that here, people have a different mentality about rescue and about the value of spending time out in the country. Time on the land nurtures, both in regards to subsistence food gathering, but also for its own sake. It is good for the soul and one’s physical and mental well-being to be connected to the land. But, being out in the country can also be dangerous. As a result of the inherent hazards, these northern societies have learned to work together, and have practical systems in place.

Two days after the storm, Kim and I pushed our bikes along Kobuk Lake through the new snow when Raymond, another Buckland resident traveling to Kotzebue, stopped to talk to us. He informed us that the trail would soon be improving and he told us stories of the mythical creatures that he and his ancestors believed inhabited these parts. When the conversation turned to search and rescue Raymond stated, “I always go out looking when someone is missing. I go every time,” he said. “Because I want everyone that I help to come looking for me, if I’m ever in trouble.”

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