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Outdoors/Adventure

Biking the Nulato Hills worth the considerable effort

  • Author: Luc Mehl
  • Updated: October 3, 2017
  • Published October 2, 2017

Eric Parsons enjoys a soft descent on caribou lichen, Nulato Hills. (Luc Mehl)

Fifteen minutes into the flight from Fairbanks to Galena I knew I was in trouble.

I had to pee, not just badly, but really, really badly. I studied the pilot's GPS, identified the number that must be the miles remaining to Galena, watched time and distance and calculated how long we would be in the air. I'm a math dork. I calculate everything.

I'd never heard of the Nulato Hills before a conversation at a wedding in July. The low mountains lie north of the Yukon River between Galena and Unalakleet. After studying the satellite imagery of the area, I identified a 100-mile ridge that looked bikeable.

Of course, most things look bikeable from outer space. I showed Eric Parsons the imagery and he thought it was worth the risk. Eric has done a lot of bike exploration, he even designs bike cargo bags, so his vote of confidence counted for a lot. We calculated an expected pace, days, food, water.

Eric Parsons crosses the Nulato River en route to the Nulato Hills. (Luc Mehl)

Well, not water. Water is considered a freebie… always available in Alaska. Water…

I woke up Eric and explained that I needed his water bottle. It was full, but I prompted him to drink it, all, quickly. I took the bottle to the back of the small plane, embarrassed and apologetic to the other passenger. Now it was Eric's turn to watch the GPS; 45 minutes later he made a rushed crouch/stumble to the bathroom in Galena.

From Galena we flew to Nulato, assembled our bikes and started the 10-mile, off-trail journey to the ridge. We knew the approach would be slow, but it was worse than expected. We pushed and carried our bikes for 10 hours, through marsh, new burn, old burn, deadfall, dense new birch growth and dense black spruce. We reached the ridge at 10 p.m., set up our tarp-shelter and collapsed into deep sleep.

Eric Parson carries his bike through the worst of a past burn, deadfall and dense new growth. (Luc Mehl)

Clouds moved in overnight, and we awoke to a view of white caribou lichen draped by a white sky. We navigated the ridge by GPS and compass, making slow progress but loving the downhill rides and appreciating the incredible fall colors that teased through the clouds. It felt like a very small world, most vibrant at our feet, fading to gray with distance.

The ridge got more bikeable as we gained elevation. On the third day, after our smoothest section of biking, I checked our progress and calculated our pace. It was half the planned pace, meaning we would need twice as many days, and twice as much food, to reach Unalakleet.

Stretching food that far sounded risky, and not much fun, so we turned around. The visibility improved during our retreat, which made it easier to find and bike on musk ox trails, incredibly ideal for biking. We finished each downhill with big smiles and were thoroughly impressed with how well our oversized wheels handled the tundra.

A muskox in the mist. (Luc Mehl)

Our final night was at the end of the road from Nulato. In the morning we heard several gunshots. Soon, a truck pulled up to our campsite, two kids and an adult. The kids had been hunting spruce chickens and got two. I teased them about needing more practice, since we had heard so many shots. They appreciated the joke and were excited to hear that we had seen musk ox. The hills are close to town but with such difficult access, they don't get many visitors.

Luc Mehl descends one of the Nulato Hills late at night. (Eric Parsons)

Our return flight went from Nulato to Kaltag, Galena and Ruby. We appreciated the tour of the Yukon in the glory of autumn colors. Alaska is amazing, especially when you don't have to pee.

Anchorage freelance writer Luc Mehl explores Alaska by bike, skis and boat. His photos and trip reports can be found at thingstolucat.com.

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