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More than a century of tales from the trails in ‘Wheels on Ice: Stories of Cycling in Alaska’

In late 1899, Ed Jesson heard that gold was being scooped from the beaches of Western Alaska. Seeking the quickest way there from Dawson City, he purchased a bicycle, and in early 1900 pedaled the Yukon River and winter trails all the way to Nome, becoming the first known person to ride a bicycle across Alaska. He wouldn’t be the last.

Jesson’s firsthand account of that epic journey opens the late historian Terrence Cole’s 1989 book “Wheels on Ice: Bicycling in Alaska 1898-1908.” That slim volume, which compiled five gold rush-era accounts of bicycling the Last Frontier, holds “something of a cult status in Alaska,” said Jessica Cherry, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s also “nearly unobtainable,” which is part of why she and the late University of Alaska English professor Frank Soos co-edited a new and greatly expanded edition of the book.

“Wheels on Ice: Stories of Cycling in Alaska” reprints three of the pieces from Cole’s original along with a selection of essays from the 1980s and ‘90s — when all-season recreational bicycling surged in Alaska — and more than 20 contributions from current Alaska cyclists.

Cherry and several of those contributors will be reading selections from the book at Writer’s Block in Anchorage at 6 p.m. Thursday.

“There was such a wonderful diversity in the contemporary pieces of different seasonal cycles,” Cherry said, explaining that essays came from many parts of the state. Contributors were “people of different ages, and different ethnic backgrounds,” she added. “That was so wonderful to see emerge organically.”

Martha Amore, who will be reading Thursday, contributed a selection about a winter ride to work. Winter commuters, she said, “are not necessarily a hardy breed; we are simply good at dressing for the weather.” She added that what “most of us fear is not the cold or dark, but Anchorage drivers.”

In her selection, Amore mentions the fears of being a woman alone on the city’s trails, which prompt her to take roads instead. But those fears don’t extend to a group of unhoused people she has grown familiar with who are invariably friendly and welcoming.

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Homeless on the streets of Anchorage is where Edwin, the subject of Don Reardon’s essay, reached the end of his life. Reardon, who will also be reading at Thursday’s event, writes movingly about a troubled man he knew as a child in Bethel who was a notorious bicycle thief.

Reardon said that growing up in Southwest Alaska “with so much tundra, riding was limited to boardwalks. Bethel had kids on bikes everywhere, but the roads and weather conditions weren’t very conducive to commuting or adults out biking for exercise.” Today, by contrast, “the main highway has a bike lane and fat bikes have moved in and can be seen rolling across the tundra and on the ice road,” he said. “Fat bikes have been a game changer and I look forward to the day when more kids in the villages can get their hands on them.”

Fat biking was also a game changer for contributor Clinton Hodges III. His essay weaves between a memoir of growing up in Anchorage and developing a love for competitive movement, and an account of racing in the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Though originally drawn to motorsports, he bought a fat bike in 2017 and found himself hooked. He also began blogging and became a writer.

“I started writing because I hoped that someone else would feel the excitement and want to know more about the Iditarod Trail,” Hodges said. “I felt like others’ experiences and the impression left on me was something I could contribute to. I also was elated about the opportunity to race with people I respected and looked up to.”

Well-known Anchorage authors and adventurers Roman Dial and Bill Sherwonit will be among those reading Thursday. And among those appearing in the book who won’t be present are top competitive cyclist Lael Wilcox, past Iditarod Trail Invitational champion Jeff Oatley and the late Rocky Reifenstuhl, perhaps the most legendary cyclist in Alaska history. Many other essays are from recreational riders who have found their passion riding through Alaska on two wheels.

“Every single one of our writers has their own interesting story,” Cherry said.

Cherry hopes that by combining the historic pieces from the gold rush, memoirs from the end of the millennium and present-day essays, Alaska cyclists can “bear witness to our friends and our predecessors and think, what do we see for Alaska’s future? Could we elevate cycling in our communities to make it safer and easier?”

This is the sort of thing Corinna Cook ponders while riding. Cook will be reading Thursday from her essay about reaching the end of the pavement on Juneau’s North Douglas Highway. “I think about how history walks around in the present, and how things are the way they are because of how they got to be,” she said. For her, “the bicycle is a point of entry into one of my tangles.”

“Wheels on Ice” hit some tangles on the road to publication. Cherry and Soos were just gearing up when the pandemic hit, slowing the process. Then Cole succumbed to cancer in December 2020. Cole’s passing was expected, as he had gone public about his diagnosis. But the sudden death of Soos wasn’t. He died in a solo bicycle accident in Maine in August 2021, leaving Cherry to do the final work on the book.

“Not only was Frank my collaborator on this project,” said Cherry, who still feels his loss deeply, “he was my writing mentor and my friend, and my former neighbor in Fairbanks.” In memory of Soos, who was the 2014 Alaska Writer Laureate, she added, “I’m honored that I got to work with him on this project, and I think he would have been proud of the final product and proud that we got it over the finish line.”

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Contributors Don Reardon, Bill Sherwonit, Corinna Cook, Roman Dial, Martha Amore and editor/contributor Jessica Cherry will be reading selections from “Wheels on Ice” at Writer’s Block at 6 p.m. Thursday.

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Editor’s note: David James has an essay included in the book. Contributors were offered free copies as sole compensation for their work, and neither he nor the others mentioned will receive payment from sales.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Frank Soos was struck by a motorist and killed; he died in a solo bicycle accident. The initial version of the article also incorrectly reported that Jessica Cherry is a climate scientist with the University of Alaska, which is a previous position she held. She now works at NOAA.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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