SELDOVIA -- "There goes the not-helpful machine!" my daughter sang from behind me, pointing out the grader spreading the road with a thick layer of gravel, fist-sized rocks, and clumps of grass.
I cringed a little, hoping the operator hadn't heard her. "No, he is helping. It'll just take a lot of cars driving on it before it's smoothed out again."
I turned to go around the machine, bracing against the worrisome wobble as the bike started to cross through the several-inch-thick band of loose dirt. I hopped off the seat, waddled it around, and then started back up the hill on the stripe of road that best approximated smooth. A car passed by in a cloud of dust.
"How many more curves until we're home?" my son asked.
Barely enough leg power
I think of the ride that way, too. I count the road by its four tightest corners, where the right edge is banked so extremely that I have to choose between riding in the middle of the road or falling into the ditch. I just barely have enough leg power to get that 75 extra pounds (my 5-year-old and my 3-year-old) up the hill.
With or without the kids, leaving our place is a speedy blur of coasting, slowed only by ice or bone-jarring washboards. But my ride home, from pretty much anywhere, is 500 feet up, spread across 3 winding miles.
Back before I moved to Alaska, before I had kids, I was an every-day biker. I didn't have a car. In rush hour traffic, I could even pass the cars. Now, the addition of two small children to my load is balanced out by the fact that I don't have to actually lug them every day. And if a relative is going my way, I will happily offload both of them for the ride up the hill. I still don't have a car, but I no longer pass any, either. I miss pavement more often than I'd like to admit. I fantasize about a beautiful paved bike trail winding through the hills, far from the dust clouds of the gravel road.
But bikes, especially in Alaska, can do so much more than pavement. Put extra-fat tires on them, and you can travel hundreds of miles on sandy beaches, on snowmachine trails, on glaciers... I have friends who've done amazing things on bicycles.
I think of those friends as I ride up my hill. Especially in winter, when I put away the cargo bike with kid seats on the back in favor of studded tires, a covered trailer, and a nervous anticipation of the weather. Snow dust on slick ice, a heavy fresh snowfall, unplowed slush, rutted and refrozen slush -- there are so many conditions that make kid-towing up that hill simply impossible.
Other friends think of me, lugging the kids, to get inspiration to tackle our road themselves.
Seventh in the nation
Alaska has a surprising number of bicyclists. About 1 percent of Alaskans bike to work — putting us seventh in the nation. A good chunk of them live in places like Fairbanks that sees months of frigid sub-zero temperatures each winter. Even Anchorage riders have to handle a good deal more cold weather than I do on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula — and quite a bit more traffic. And those numbers don't even count all the riders like me.
With the kids in tow, I climb the hill at a pace just a little above a brisk walk. Bicycles are amazingly efficient machines. I can barely imagine carrying both kids on my back at that speed. And with their freedom from gas prices, even relatively expensive bicycles -- like my cargo bike -- are pretty affordable.
The speed gives me time to think. And in between appreciating the scenery, watching the birds in the brush and the plants greening up with the spring, I often think about how the ride is hard. Maybe I should get an electric wheel for the bike or not make quite so many trips, or get a bike where the kids could maybe help me pedal. Will I still be lugging them this way when they're 8?
I build a lot of my life out of things that are hard. My usual building blocks are blizzards, glaciers and 60-pound packs. Coaxing a preschooler across seemingly endless mudflats or alder thickets. In the case of my bike, I might find a technological solution that makes the hill easier. But in the meantime, it follows the same rules as most hard things. The more you do them, the less they matter. Hard never really gets easy. But if I'm used to it and expecting it, hard loses its emotional punch. I can grumble sarcastically in the moment, and then let it pass right — until the next time.
Erin McKittrick is an writer, adventurer, and scientist based in Seldovia, Alaska. Author of "A Long Trek Home: 4,000 Miles by Boot Raft and Ski", and "Small Feet, Big Land: Adventure, Home and Family on the Edge of Alaska". You can find her at Ground Truth Trekking.org.