Inuvik to near BAR-C: Downhill all day, a crazy 10 metre descent! - Slightly North of Sanity - CycleBlaze

March 10, 2017

Inuvik to near BAR-C: Downhill all day, a crazy 10 metre descent!

Toes Remaining: 10

I pedalled through the snow-covered streets of Inuvik as the cloudy sky became light, feeling the same excitement and fear that's been with me since I flew to Yellowknife, only heightened. I was on my own from now on, no warm building available at the end of the day. Just my gear and my knowledge. Scary stuff, having nothing to rely on except myself.

Still unfamiliar with my (much better balanced) load, I walked down the steep ice ramp of the riverbank and that was it, I was on the river, the surface hardpack to start, so it could have been any other road in Inuvik. A truck exiting the ice road waved and honked encouragement.

Then it was quiet.

"It's just you and me now, river."

Oh great. Thirty seconds in and I'm already talking to inanimate objects.

Though that's not an entirely fair assessment; contrary to its appearance, the ice road is dynamic. There are the obvious changes due to snowfall and wear and tear, but, more importantly, the very structure of the road is constantly changing.

It's not a solid sheet of ice, like a hockey rink. It's a sheet of ice that is thickening, melting, expanding, and contracting. Exposed ice displays countless surface and deep cracks. Road crews grade the surface, but sooner or later the movement of the ice creates jagged chunks that turn the surface rough and bumpy.

The Mackenzie River: major transportation route in summer and winter
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And underneath all this, the river is still flowing. The Mackenzie is pretty safe in winter, but unless you are very familiar with water currents you never know if you're standing on three inches or three feet of ice under all that snow.

Just me and the road
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But the water is good--the weight of the vehicle/pedestrian/bicycle presses the ice downward and the water provides the underlying support.

As the vehicle travels, the depression in the surrounding ice moves with it, which creates waves. If a heavy enough vehicle exceeds the speed limit (determined by the strength of the ice, which is more complicated than just the thickness) it can weaken and damage the ice through the waves it creates.

When heavy vehicles pass, you can often hear--and even feel--the ice cracking. It's an odd sort of sound, a reverberating-echoing-almost springy-muffled-thud. You're right, I have no idea how to describe it, which is okay because all I'm going to say is there were no heavy trucks and I didn't get to hear any cracks.

Looking back, the sun is making a half-hearted appearance
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I didn't have to think about the thickness of the ice, or the depression (however slight) that followed me as I pedalled. I was concerned with the surface: finding the smoothest line and keeping an eye out for major cracks, which I treated like train tracks and crossed perpendicularly. Cracks are tricky because if they don't go all the way through the ice they won't fill with with water and freeze. But they will usually have snow in and/or on them, and it's impossible to tell at a glance if the cracks have filled in or are traps. It's best to treat everything like a trap, even though it slows you down.

The exposed ice sections were, in theory, the fastest, but my rear wheel kept slipping a bit and I didn't know the tipping point of a loaded bike. Caution keeps getting slower and slower.

I found the best riding was right at the edge of a track of exposed ice, where there was the tiniest amount of snow, just enough for perfect traction with no impact on speed.

Bubbles in the ice. And part of my boot. I'm going to claim it's for scale and not just because I'm a lazy photographer in the cold.
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Not that I had any idea how fast I was going. Not that it mattered--I would camp before I ran out of daylight, stop for food and drink and clothing adjustments when needed.

Of course, it wasn't long before I had to stop. Any stop in winter is complicated and time-consuming, but a bathroom break (for women, anyway) is the worst. First, I had to find a section of road where the snowbank was vertical enough to lean my bike against. Dismount, prop up bike, pull off outer gloves. Climb over snowbank and find a nice patch of snow (er, that would be wherever I was standing on the river). My snowpants have zippers on the outside of both legs--unzip those, pull down fleece pants, pull down base layer, pull down bike shorts. Relieve self. Hear car coming, attempt to pull all layers back up, get stuck for a few tense seconds, finally pull off inner gloves for better grip and just manage to be modest and nonchalant when the pickup truck comes into view.

Eating and drinking were somewhat less stressful procedures. I carried my water in a hydration pack under my insulating layers, which made me look like a hunchback. I had to unzip two to three pieces of clothing to get at the bite valve. This often meant removing outer gloves, which had to be stuffed into my jacket if I didn't want to put my hands back into frozen solid gloves. I also had to pull down my balaclava.

At least I didn't have to undress past face and hands in order to eat. I kept my food in my basket, and while it would've been easier to eat had I kept it warm in my jacket, it didn't really matter because I usually didn't stop long enough for more than a handful at a time--stopping got very cold, very quickly.

After what seemed like a very long time, I reached the junction where there's a turnoff to Aklavik. The road to Tuk was straight ahead--and decorated with a Road Closed sign.

This is just a suggestion, there was a fair bit of traffic for an isolated, closed road made from river and ocean in the Arctic.
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A road worker had stopped to chat early in the day and told me the road was open now, so I wisely disregarded the sign and soon a pickup truck from beyond the sign pulled over for a smoke break.

An older woman came over and asked, "What are you doing out here all alone?" It was the second time in five minutes I had been asked that.

I still don't have a good answer for that one. I asked her if the road was open.

"They've got one lane open past BAR-C. It's enough for a truck; you'll be okay if you move over."

BAR-C? I didn't know where that was, but figured I'd find out soon enough.

She had more to tell me: "The guy who's walking isn't too far ahead of you."

She spoke about him as if I already knew about him, and I did: the road worker had told me about him.

"Where did you see him? Maybe I'll catch him today."

"I think he was up near BAR-C. About 30 kilometres."

When I caught up to the walker 15 km later, I was still 45 km from BAR-C. With no hills, I could trust the other people on the road to give me good information about everything except distance.

Distance markers kept me well-apprised of my progress. I remember seeing one for 25 km, this one, and one for 50 km.
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The walker was Japanese, pulling a large cart with a flag saying Alaska to Argentina 2015. We asked the usual questions but didn't get much information due a bit of a language barrier. It was his second day on the road, and the end of his nose looked terrible. It was a large pale spot on an otherwise tanned face: frostbite.

"You should be careful with your nose."

He smiled and nodded.

"Seriously, be careful. It looks terrible."

He smiled and nodded, "Yes."

What more could I say? I probably wasn't the first to have mentioned it, probably not the last. Maybe he didn't understand any of us or maybe this wasn't new for him. I just hope he kept his face covered for the rest of the walk.

The next 45 km were mostly uneventful: people occasionally stopping to ask if I was okay or what I was doing, the road winding with the river, an emdless chain of hills to the right, everything gradually opening up, getting wider, trees receding. Eventually I realized there were no more trees, and then I spotted three of them huddled together in a sheltered spot.

Looking back, the land is opening up
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One painful incident disrupted my otherwise serene day. I either caught my wheel in a crack, or possibly opened up a surface a crack as I rode over, resulting in a nasty bump and some of my delicate parts smashed into the nose of my saddle, which is a Brooks so was rock hard. I braked to catch my breath, put a foot down on the ice, promptly slipped, and smashed into my top tube. Not the kind of things I like to be writing about--and certainly not a part of my anatomy that enjoys such abuse--but I guess it's all part of the experience.

At some point during the afternoon, the same road worker from before took a break from plowing to tell me I was almost halfway to Tuk--just ahead where it opened up, there would be a bend and then the old camp. Just like that. I was skeptical.

Three hours later, I still had no idea what the road worker had been talking about. The sun was getting low, though that didn't mean much because it never gets all that high in the Arctic. I was getting tired and thinking about where to camp. The sky had cleared so I could see I only had a couple hours of daylight left.

A northbound SUV stopped next to me and, without a word, the passenger passed me two muffins (delicious). The driver said, "You're halfway there!"

"Really? Here?" I stupidly pointed to my feet.

He pointed ahead and to the left of the road. "See that island? That's exactly halfway."

It was welcome news. I had no idea how far I had travelled, since the last distance marker I saw was back at 50 km. I didn't even know how long the road actually was; my research claimed anything from 185 to 195 km. Definitely time to stop for the day.

I asked if there was anywhere the road went close to shore, where I could camp, and they told me about a trailer just past Lucas Point, which may or may not have been visible from where I was.

The idea of being halfway there was fantastic; I had figured I could get there in two days if conditions were perfect, but thought the rough sections had slowed me down too much for that. The idea of having a trailer to sleep in quickly became mini-obsession.

So I had the trailer in my mind and the halfway island in sight. The sun was beginning to cast a late-day glow over everything (that is, the snow and ice) and the island wasn't getting any bigger. The scale of this land was just as if I was on water--which of course I was.

I biked and biked, still watching the island. I might have been a bit careless, or the snow might have provided the perfect cover, but one moment I was riding along and the next my wheels had slipped out from under me to the right and I was falling to the left.

Though it didn't hurt, I took a few seconds to process what had just happened. After I got up, I walked back several metres to where my tire tracks ended--one tire had just avoided a large crack, but the other went right in. The bike was fine, except for one broken cable tie on the basket and the mirror, which had folded itself in from the impact. I decided to leave the mirror so I wouldn't risk breaking it if I crashed again.

The crack that got me. You can see a tire track just to the right of the crack that swallowed the other wheel.
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Just to clarify, yes, I'm doing this for fun. Not to prove a point, not for charity, but for fun.

Just to clarify, yes, I'm clearly crazy. I don't see any way to argue against that anymore.

I kept riding, I reached the halfway island. Just beyond it was a bigger island, where there was equipment working, a worksite for the road crews. This, I believe, is now informally referred to as BAR-C, even though the real BAR-C is 10 km or so further down the road.

The halfway island!
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Right where I passed the access point to the site, the road dwindled to the single lane the woman had told me about earlier. It also had heavier snow cover and was harder to bike through. I still couldn't see a trailer anywhere, but after a few minutes there was a small point of land no more than 200 m from the road. A decent enough place to camp.

The start of the second half of the road. Down to one lane and looking very rugged and wild in such an empty landscape.
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I didn't get my trailer, but at least I didn't have to camp on the water. It would probably be okay, but land is always safer, and sometimes more sheltered--not there, though, with only low bushes for cover. That is, I didn't have to camp on water if I could get my bike up and over the snowbank.

I pushed and got the front wheel partway up, the back still firmly on the road. I pushed harder, got the back wheel up a tiny bit, amd couldn't move any further. I fell over. So did the bike. I tried pulling; nothing. The major obstacle was finding a way to push the bike from behind--with all the gear piled up, there was nowhere to get a good grip.

After some more struggle, and a stubborn refusal to remove my gear from the bike, I got the bike to the top of the snowbank and discovered the ripples and drifts in the snow between me and the shore had been carved very solidly by the wind. I pushed the bike right over that snow, only getting bogged down in a few spots along the way.

I set up the tent, melted some snow, cooked dinner, and prepared for the night. The sky was pink, then orange on the horizon. I turned around to see a near-full moon rising on the opposite horizon.

It was time for bed. I have no idea how more impressive winter campers get into their sleeping bags, but my process resembles getting gradually swallowed by a snake. Boots off, in a stuff sack, into the foot of the sleeping bag. Socks off, clean feet (wet wipes in this case), bedtime socks on, feet into sleeping bag. Feet back out of sleeping bag to change pants (again with the wet wipes), then whole lower half in bag. Repeat with upper body, get deeper into sleeping bag. Cinch neck baffles and hood. Writhe around pulling at various parts until nose and mouth are pointing outside of the bag. Try to sleep.

Writhe around with more pulling, plus copious amounts of sliding off the sleeping pad, every time I want to roll over, which is often.

The good news I didn't expect to enjoy the camping part of this tour. I like when things go according to plan like that.

Today's ride: 93 km (58 miles)
Total: 106 km (66 miles)

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