Nulato Hills Biking Musk Ox Trails
I first heard about the Nulato Hills at a wedding (Neil and Marisa’s) earlier this summer. During the reception, Andy Angstman came over to talk about my ice skate/ski trip through the Woodtikchiks in 2014. Andy grew up in Bethel and has a family cabin that we skied near. I went to college with his sister, Sarah, and she helped with logistics for an ice skating trip out of Bethel in 2016. I stuffed my face with cookies while Andy told me about the Nulato Hills, a hidden gem in Alaska, cool mountains that don’t get any traffic. At home I jumped on Google Earth to check out the area. I was particularly impressed with a nearly continuous ridge that stretches 100 miles, connecting Nulato to Unalakleet. In fact, it even looked bikeable… from outer space. Who could I find that would be willing to bring a bike to a remote area with no promise that it was bikeable? Eric Parsons! I sent him the Google Earth route and he replied, “I am pumped on it and am pretty much a green light on the domestic front.”
Eric (owner and founder of Revelate Designs) shipped our bikes to Nulato and we flew to join them in early September. Through a Wilderness Classic connection (Steve Duby) we got contact info for the Nulato principal, Jason Johnson, who was a huge help as our local contact. I brought oranges, pineapples, watermelon, coffee, and creamer to the school as a thank you.
Water was a common theme on this trip– too much and too little. Too much started early… 15 minutes into the flight from Fairbanks to Galena I woke up Eric to see if he had a water bottle. I’ve never had to pee so badly in my life, and watching our progress on the pilot’s GPS convinced me that I couldn’t make it. Eric did have a bottle, but it was full. After a few more minutes it was clear that we had to drink the water, and by we, I mean Eric. Eric slammed the liter of water, I crawled to the back of the plane and promptly refilled it. For the rest of the flight Eric watched the GPS, and did a rushed crouch-walk from the plane straight to the bathroom. Team work!
We built the bikes in front of the school and rode 3 miles to the end of the road, a pullout at the Nulato River. We were nervous about the river crossing, and brought a throwrope to pendulum the bikes across the river (they float). But the river was low enough for a waist-deep crossing (Eric took a slightly deeper line). It was a great relief to have the crossing behind us, and all the gear stayed dry.
From the river crossing we had 7 miles to reach the ridge. The terrain was a mix of new burn (2015), dense tioga forest, open birch forest, and older burn (2005?). This terrain was significantly harder than I expected, partly because the Google Earth imagery was from 2006, missing the new burn, but mostly because I mis-identified the old burn as low-brush terrain good for walking. It took us 10 hours of bike pushing/lifting/throwing, to finally access the ridge.
We were elated to reach tree line around 10 pm and set up the ‘mid for a night of deep sleep. In the morning we put the pedals on the bikes and were giddy about our first (short) downhills. The ridge still dipped below tree line with thick brush, so it was a day of mixed riding and bushwhacking. We were in the clouds/rain all day, and didn’t find any water sources. In fact, we never found water on the ridge. It felt absurd to be soaking wet at times, yet thirsty. We used catchment off the ‘mid the next night to collect 7 liters, and when that was gone we resorted to using cloth to collect water off the blueberry and dwarf birch leaves. This worked surprisingly well, but not so well that we weren’t dehydrated.
We brought “plus bikes” on the trip. Eric had an Otso with 27.5+ (4 inch) wheels, and lent me his Surly ECR with 29+ (3 inch) wheels. They were the right bikes for the job! The riding was fun and fast when we found muskox trails. The oversized wheels did a wonderful job of rolling over the uneven tundra, and held an edge incredibly well, allowing us to slalom down the steeper sections. If nothing else, this trip was a great proof-of-concept for off-trail travel with plus bikes.
The only animals we saw were birds (a lot of hawks, I think), and one or two muskox (maybe the same muskox twice). The first muskox sighting was in thick fog, unnoticed until a 40 ft distance. Even then, the muskox was not at all concerned about us, and only gradually moved away. The second sighting was on a screaming downhill, and all I noticed was Eric jumping off his bike because he spooked the muskox and scared himself in the process.
The weather never really letup on the ridge, and our progress was significantly slower than hoped, 12 mi/day pace instead of the 25 mi/day that I thought we could cover. I don’t have a lot of experience guessing paces with bikes, but now I’ve got a new data point (12 miles/day pushing up hill is probably upper limit for a “comfortable” trip). After much discussion we calculated that we needed at least 4 more days food, too much to try to stretch our existing rations. The bad weather and lack of water were other major factors in the decision to bail on Unalakleet and just return to Nulato. It was depressing to know we would have to travel through the burns again.
We had some great interactions with people back in Nulato, telling them about the old caribou antler sheds and the muskox. They don’t go out to that ridge, or at least not during the summer, since the terrain is so rough. We scavenged some cardboard from the school and packed the bikes for shipment back to Anchorage. I scoped out as much of the route as I could from the air, and plan to head back into the hills next summer, but probably without the bikes.