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Homer couple pedals fat bikes 1,000 miles to the Arctic

On Feb. 26, Kim McNett and Bjorn Olson set off on a 36-day, 1,000-mile bicycle adventure to Alaska's Arctic. They rode their "fat bikes" along the entire 700-mile northern route of the historic Iditarod Trail.

And when this trail ended, they veered north over the Seward Peninsula, crossed the sea ice and rode into Kotzebue. In the process, they became the first people to bike from Anchorage to Kotzebue.

"We share our story because we want people to realize what is possible if you set a goal, make time, challenge yourself and are willing to step outside your comfort zone," Olson said. McNett and Olson met in 2009 and spent six weeks circumnavigating Prince William Sound in a tandem kayak they constructed together. That was just the start. They have:

• Ridden fat bikes on the Iditarod Trail from Knik to McGrath;

• Paddled the Kuskokwim River in pack rafts;

• Biked the Kuskokwim River from Aniak to Bethel in winter;

• Biked from Homer to Port Graham and biked and paddled around Tustumena Lake.

For their fat bike ride to the Arctic, the couple rode titanium fat bikes with 4-inch studded tires. Olson's rims were 100 millimeters wide, while McNett used 80-millimeter rims. In exchange for writing articles and providing photographs of their journey, the website Ground Truth Trekking sponsored them and provided equipment. Bike companies also gave a discount on their bikes and provided gear, while Anchorage company AirLite provided them with inflatable snowshoes.

Olson and McNett carried 70 to 80 pounds of gear on their journey, including packs, food and water, clothing, equipment and camera gear. Clothing included boots, two to three layers and furs. "Each item we took was heavily scrutinized," McNett said. "It's a heavy load to be self-contained and self-sufficient."

They modified their tent shelter, a floor-less pyramid lightweight shelter made out of nylon, with a two-pound collapsible titanium woodstove.

"Having this stove was an incredible asset," McNett said. "We were able to air our bodies out and start off and end each day happy and warm." The couple typically rose at 6 a.m., had breakfast and coffee, dried their sleeping bags out, packed their gear and were on the trail by 8 a.m. At the beginning of the trip, they had roughly nine and a half hours of daylight. By the end, they were up to 13 hours. The two biked as long as they could through the day, and as the days got longer, they rode longer.

The couple sent nine food drops ahead. Each one contained five days' worth of food. "Before we left, we dehydrated our own vegetables and salmon and made power bars," McNett said. In a typical day, their caloric intake was 3,500 to 4,500 calories. They started each day with a big breakfast, and rather than stopping for lunch, they snacked on homemade energy bars, dried salmon, nuts, dried fruit and candy in packs that sat on their handlebars. In the evenings, they ate a large dinner that was high in fat and protein. Villagers also gifted them with black and white muktuk (bowhead and beluga whale), beaver, moose, goose, swan, caribou and salmon.

Temperatures on the trail ranged from 40 above to 25 below, and as they rode further north, it stayed cold longer. By the end of the trip, they were wearing their furs all day long. Olson and McNett rode in the cold, beneath a warming sun, in rain and in blizzards. They rode across firm trails and slushy snowmelt, traversed frozen rivers and sea ice, and raced against a window of time that was unpredictable due to constant change that comes and goes with the seasons.

During a 24-hour layover in Rohn -- where they volunteered to help handle Iditarod dogs -- Olson experienced what he referred to as one of the most spectacular moments of the trip. "I was up getting water and looking at the little bit of predawn light," he said. "In that moment, I was struck by how cool everything was, that we were engaged in the heart of the Iditarod."

McNett's favorite night of the trip was the night they left Unalakleet and camped on the beach. "We slept camped out near the fire like it was a summer sea-kayaking trip," she said. "The frozen sea and rainbowed sunset were in front of us."

McNett said she was awestruck when they reached Norton Sound, saw the sea ice and rode across the frozen ocean. It was a moment she had been fantasizing about for a year.

With no injuries and feeling stronger than when they started, McNett and Olson rode into Kotzebue on April 3, where they celebrated over cheeseburgers and ice cream in a Mongolian-owned Asian restaurant. "I am grateful for the good fortune we encountered along the way," McNett said. "We were so reliant on what the trail provides, and it provided for us." The couple is considering creating a film, "Fat Bike to the Arctic." Or check out their journal.

This story first appeared in the Homer Tribune and published here with permission.