BAR-C to Tuktoyaktuk: Where's my "Bike to Tuk" t-shirt? - Slightly North of Sanity - CycleBlaze

March 11, 2017

BAR-C to Tuktoyaktuk: Where's my "Bike to Tuk" t-shirt?

Toes remaining: 10

I was only a bit chilly last night, so I suppose the night could be considered a success (tightening the neck baffles perfectly seems to be the missing key to warmth). The morning, however, was a different story altogether.

My alarm went off at 7:15 am. Since my phone was in a pocket in my sleeping bag, and I was in a sleeping bag liner, I had to stick my hands out of the face opening of the liner and let in some cold air in order to turn off the alarm.

Today was the day I would reach Tuk! Well, maybe. The road was in very slow condition when I left it last night, and if it stayed like that, I'd almost certainly be camping another night.

I managed to retrieve my waterbottle from between my feet so I could take my medication, and after that there was no excuse to stay cocooned in my bag, so I started getting dressed, warming each body part in the sleeping bag after cruelly exposing it to the cold.

An hour later I was finished.

An hour to get dressed?? An hour to get dressed when all I did was add layers??

It wasn't necessarily a problem because I could pack up while I was cooking breakfast and melting snow for the day.

In theory.

In reality, it was 10:45 when I got back to the road, soon after a fluffy fox wandered by. No way was I reaching Tuk today, not when I had 90 km or so to cover.

The road was bumpy and snowy at first, and that reinforced my thinking that Tuk wasn't going to happen.

But then it improved, was smoother with less snow, and I was making decent progress. Maybe I could reach Tuk after all!

Yes, I could definitely reach Tuk if I could make it halfway by 3:00 pm. I'd check on my progress then, but for the rest of the day I would just enjoy the sun and the ice and the pair of ravens, and two glimpses of distant foxes crossing the river, all alone and with nowhere to hide. Just like me. I wondered if the animal I had heard last night was a fox, since none of my food was disturbed.

A southbound car stopped and, without a word, the driver gave me a bag of cashews before offering me coffee. It was absurdly like yesterday, being given food just like that, no asking. It was as if they were feeding the wildlife, which would pounce on anything they could get in this desolate place. And I realized that's exactly what I was, that for all intents and purposes I was a raven or a fox, just trying to survive.

That new perspective entertained me for a while, and I had a tailwind, too, so the riding was easy and Tuk was within reach again. But the tailwind soon betrayed me, as it had blown snowdrifts across a long section of road. Fun at first because I could bike right through them, they soon became deep enough that I had to start pushing the bike. The snow here is exceptionally powdery, to the point where I can step in five centimetres of the stuff and still slip on the ice underneath, but my tires do have limits.

The wind was busy attempting to bury the road. Every aspect of the road is always in flux.
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Tuk was once again out of reach.

I might have said some rude things to the road at that point. Tuk was such an all-or-nothing concept because I couldn't stop whenever I ran out of light if I wanted to avoid camping on the ocean. The barren, merciless ocean, with no land, shelter, or resources. If anything were to go wrong out there, I was screwed.

But the last 35 km of the journey was on that ocean, so when I reached the last sliver of land, I had to know whether to stop or push on. I'm sure other people have successfully camped on the ocean, but I felt really uneasy, isolated, and vulnerable. Of course, I was looking forward to riding on the Arctic Ocean, but I really didn't want to risk getting stuck out there in case there was another blizzard and they closed the road again. I wouldn't even be able to make a fire if I ran out of fuel.

True, I could have solved my problem by deciding to bike into the night, but I dislike arriving at an unfamiliar place after dark with no accommodation lined up. Especially in this climate.

And so with each change in road conditions, I continued to change my mind about whether or not I would bike to Tuk today.

See the yellow road sign at the left, and the slight horizontal ridge? That was a previous, abandoned version of this winter's road. I was on the new road.
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Nice sunny day, good section of road, tailwind, what more can I ask for?
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Here they're actually creating the road, not too far from the first incarnation. I had to dodge that plow a few times. Biking was difficult through this stretch.
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And then I was at the last islands, decorated with barge markers and almost close enough to touch as the road squeezed between them. And I decided I would go for it.

I was biking on the Arctic Ocean, Tuk somewhere ahead of me where the land curled around and up, the sun behind me, the ARCTIC OCEAN under my wheels. I thought of the power of the water in the ocean, the waves, the tides, the depths--the entire ocean contained neatly beneath me--and I started laughing.

The Arctic Ocean!
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Snow and ice and nothing else. Such easy travel in such an inhospitable environment.
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Laughing is hard when you have a frozen Snickers bar sticking out of your mouth and end up drooling all over your neoprene mask. (I changed my Snickers-consumption strategy early on, after half a bar fell out of my basket--I was very proud of myself for catching it in mid-air and not crashing the bike, but wasn't going to take more foolish risks with my supply of chocolate.)

I stopped laughing when the cracks became treacherous. The ocean might be neatly contained, but it still asserted itself and demanded respect. The ice was slippery, the cracks here were wide and numerous, and I had to be vigilant.

Cracks in the ocean. I could probably put my fist into the one on the left. Without actually trying to put my fist in it, I have no idea how solid that snow is, so it's best to stay out of all wide cracks.
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Vigilance turned out to be too slow, so I made a new plan. Continue to cross the cracks perpendicularly, and trust my studded tires to do their job. Which they did. I could feel my wheel slipping frequently, but the studs always caught me, no matter how sharply I had to swerve to hit a crack at the right angle.

With around 20 km left, I saw a fatbike leaning against the snowbank across the road, its rider taking pictures. This was the other cyclist I had heard about, who had been waiting for the road to reopen so he could get a lift to Tuk and ride south.

Since I had tried to contact him through several intermediaries in Inuvik, he had already heard of me and had also passed me on the way up to Tuk.

"I was hoping to look more majestic when I met you," he said. British accent.

He had wanted to impress me! I may be an insane cyclist, but at that moment I became an insane cyclist who commanded respect. I had become the badass. This was now my road, I had conquered it. Almost.

Checking on the sun behind me
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With daylight running out, I left Mark to his long journey (his bike had been damaged enough on the ride to Tuk to leave him with one working gear) and continued with mine. As I no longer had a tailwind, fatigue was taking over.

I perked up a little when I spotted the pingos (a pingo happens when a core of ice pushes up the land around it into a sort of large hill), then gradually drooped again as they neglected to get any closer.

Distant pingos. Tuk is supposedly off to the left.
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Checking on the sun again. Getting close now, but not quite close enough.
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I spotted what looked like the airport control tower but assumed it was just a mirage because, like the pingos, it also refused to get any closer.

Like most of my contests with the sun, I lost, this time because it dropped behind a cloud, so the light became flat and I had a hard time judging the road surface. How slow is that snow? Is that a crack?

Tuk was looming, but not enough, so I checked the GPS. I still had 7.1 km left. With 3 km to go, I was having a lot of trouble seeing the surface details of the road, so it wasn't really surprising when, just like yesterday, I got caught in a crack, and my wheels flew out and to the right while I fell to the left.

That one hurt. The bike seemed fine, though, and I was heading north again so my tailwind was back, and before I knew it I was in Tuk.

The battle still wasn't over. I could hear the whine of snowmobiles and see their shapes ahead of me, but they weren't on the road. A man walked by and ignored me. A few trucks went by and also ignored me.

I asked a man if he knew where there was a place to stay, or where the RCMP was. He seemed confused that I was talking to him and waved me toward the left. I went in that direction and asked three girls for directions. They didn't reply, but quickly moved away, looking back a couple of times and whispering.

The friendliness of the road was gone. Completely vanished. Now it was dark and the wind was picking up and I had no idea where to go. I stumbled on a B&B and called the number on the sign. It turned out to be $200 a night. The woman on the phone mentioned a cheaper place but I couldn't find it and they weren't answering the phone.

By this point I was getting cold, the wind was freezing my face, and I my hands were still stinging from the phone calls. -20 C, wind, bare hands, and a cell phone is a recipe for pain.

Normally when working outdoors in the cold, I can warm up my hands every few seconds. Light stove, put hands in pockets. Fiddle with camera (though not on this trip--Auto all the way), put hands in pocket. But to hold a phone to my ear while the wind and metal strip the life from my fingers wasn't something I wanted to repeat, especially as I hadn't recovered from the first round of calls.

But I needed shelter, so I called the B&B again and spoke as fast as possible: "Hi, I called about the room a little while ago. I'll take it."

"Are you sure? We have no water. There was a fire so the water truck hasn't been yet."

That is a feature of Arctic life. Permafrost not only makes building difficult, as everything has to be on piles or thick gravel pads, but water has to be aboveground, too. In smaller communities, this means every building is serviced by water trucks. If they happened to use all the water putting out a fire, your water delivery will be delayed.

The woman on the phone continued, "It's half price until we get water."

That sounded good to me. I reasoned that not having a shower would make the expedition more authentic. Or something. Or maybe I was too tired to shower anyway.

When they found out I was the cyclist they had seen earlier, I received a warm welcome, complete with caribou soup, which I only learned about after I ate it.

"This is caribou? I don't think I've ever had caribou before."

She laughed. "I didn't even think to tell you. For us it's just soup."

She was from Tuk, no longer living there, but up for a visit to work on an art piece for Parks Canada about the pingos.

She was also concerned about me, as I guess I seemed a bit out of it. Though if you've read my other journals, you know that's normal for me after a long day on tour.

I didn't feel bad, but the transition from Arctic winter to heated room and warm soup left me pretty sleepy. But when I looked in the mirror, I saw why she had been concerned: my eyes were bloodshot and my face was red.

I can only guess that the accommodation search in Tuk, where I was no longer careful about protecting myself from the weather, caused the red face, because it looked fine in the morning.

That my eyes were burned was disappointing but not entirely surprising. Being on the water has the same effect, winter or summer, in that the sun's rays are reflected and any sun exposure is intensified. I haven't figured out how to keep goggles from fogging while covering the rest of my face, so I stopped wearing my tinted goggles.

My eyes also turned out to not be as bad as they looked initially; they were probably a bit dry, too.

If I hadn't been so sleepy, I think I would've found it funny that I did so well for two days and 184 km on a river and ocean of ice, but half an hour in civilization and I managed to destroy my face and hands.

I sent a few smug texts to supporters and doubters, climbed into bed and fell asleep almost instantly.

Today's ride: 91 km (57 miles)
Total: 197 km (122 miles)

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