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Compass: There's good reason to ride a bike through Alaska's winter

In a recent letter to the editor regarding the a death of decades-long Anchorage bicycling commuter Eldridge Griffith, the writer ended with a crude, stereotyping swipe at Alaskan bicyclists: "Hippies, yuppies and greenies: Use the bike trails and sidewalks. You can still walk around smugly and live to rub it in our faces."

I would like to express why I ride bicycles year-round in Alaska. I first rode a bike to work in Anchorage in 1974. I started winter commuting in 1991, just before the studded tires by Nokian made winter riding much safer. Back then, we studded our own tires, and the results were pretty, well, screwy. Now I ride a studded "fatbike."

I came to Alaska the same year as the gas crisis of 1973, which was an eye-opener to those of us who grew up thinking gasoline was sort of like air and water: infinite. I came to Alaska because of its magnificence. Coming here was like being reborn into a fantastical primeval dream. Alaska filled me with visions, revelations, splendor and peace.

I grew up tramping around the woods and canyons of California's Sierra Nevadas. Those times filled me with a love for the natural world that trumped even the Mickey Mouse Club. I saw fellow Earth creatures in the ants that crawled up my arm in my pine needle forts and the water skippers that jetted around on top of the water of our little backyard creek like little bug Jesuses.

I rode my bike everywhere as a kid. School. Little League. For a Coke on a blistering summer day. But then I bailed on bicycles for motorcycles. The world was all about cars, trucks and big motors. Cars were God. Still are. Me? My spirit craved the rush of being outside in the wind, leaning into the turns on two wheels.

But when I "grew up," I missed the athletics of my school years. Somehow I was lucky and got how important physical exercise was to your all-around health. It just makes you feel good. Going insane reading Sartre in college? Why did that P.E. class playing basketball make me feel so great, less crazy?

In 1982, when mountain bikes came to Alaska, it was like a childhood dream come true. I was working as a brakeman on the Alaska Railroad, and my hours were so odd, I could never join even a softball team, but I could ride my bike to work. This kept me in shape for doing everything I wanted to do outdoors in Alaska.

To me, Alaska is about nature in its rawest, most powerful and profound state. This place makes me feel deeply alive. When I go outside here, it is like I am stripped to my naked, raw human being-ness, and I become a part of it and of a wildness that also fills me with a sense of freedom. I feel this even riding my bicycle to work in Anchorage in the depth of winter.

But winter here, it's tough -- even anti-human. Switching tank and coal cars at 65 below zero all night long in Fairbanks on the ARR teaches you a lot. I saw that winter was the heart and soul of Alaska. That the cold is sacred. It is what has helped protect Alaska from what E. E. Cummings called "manunkind."

Winter in Alaska taught me that Earth is truly in outer space and that life is incredibly fragile. When you embrace winter, you reap startling rewards of a miracle-scattered beauty.

In Fairbanks, I rode my bike to work from the Goldstream Valley, 10 miles to the rail yard. As I pedaled silently on my bike, I came upon sandhill cranes standing statuesque in the fields, foxes gamboling on the university lawn at sunrise, lynx padding through the deep, powdery snow and giant bull moose floating dreamlike in winter's darkness across the road in utter silence during a snowstorm.

This is why I ride my bicycle in Alaska.

Tim Snapp is a longtime bicycle commuter who lives in Anchorage and bikes to and from his work at REI.



By TIM SNAPP