Alaska for Beginners
Bike Friday goes to Alaska, August 2002

Complete photo gallery

People are bold -- Leslie Howard, Anchorage

"The first thing you look at when you open your eyes
in the morning, even before you look at your spouse or the clock � "

Janet points to the large thermometer hanging on the
wall. "We're lounging in our longjohns in her rustic
hideaway, a tarp-slung shack high on a ridge above the
no-nonsense town of Fairbanks." It's mid August, and
although the famous midnight sun is still showing for
duty, it is now getting to bed at a more respectable 9:00 p.m.

"Everyone has clothing organized in layers, 10 above zero,
10 below and minus 20. Pick the wrong set of layers, (say
10 below when it's minus 20), and if the bus is ten
minutes late you're in trouble," says Janet.

I am learning all about the winter here. As harsh as
it is stunning, it demands foresight, respect, and a
serious contemplation of all things waterproof,
windproof and fully immersible. Like cocoon-spinning
insects obeying an internal clock, Alaskans puff up like
Michelin men, women and children just as icicles start
to form under sniffly nostrils.

"Problem is, you boil if you come inside for five
minutes with all your gear on," says Janet, stoking
the potbelly stove. "The supermarkets ought to be air
conditioned to the same temperature as outside, then
you wouldn't have to fill your trolley with all your
stripped off clothes just to buy a can of refried
beans and a Twix bar."

The fire dissolves whatever cold spots remain between
her cozy Indian rugs, wall hangings, sofas, travel
books and kitchen utensils hanging from the beam
ceiling. Outside, a serious tarp lashed down on all
sides of the house keeps the sky from falling in, and
rainflecked plastic windows frame the canyon, densely
spiked with spindly, undersized spruce.


alaska up close

Three varieties of tree,
permafrost two feet below shoe level.
Alaska up close

"Below three feet it's permafrost," says Janet, "there
are only six species of tree in this region, and up
here, three." Ah, I am lousy at nomencature and I can
count to three. This seems like my kind of place.

Janet and Robert are building their dream home nearby
from enormous two-foot fat logs. Robert goes down into
the canyon, fells the tree, winches it up a steep
rise, skins it, hones it and bolts it into position,
log by log. The next ten Ice Ages will not penetrate
this fortress against the elements. As I admire this
glorious hexagonal bunker-to-be, my mind already
pictures the glow of burning embers and aroma of baked
salmon under a mural of stars.

view from Janet's

Moose-proof, man proof accomodations

I am shown the guest quarters, a plastic geodesic dome
tent set a little way off from the house and furnished
with mattress pads, love seat, mosquito net and
hessian rug that at least visually warms up the blue
plastic sheeted floor. It looks like a Bedouin's lair,
if you close your eyes and imagine a hot desert breeze
outside instead of icy wind and sideways sleet. Pools
of water form at the perimeter near the flapping doors
but the structure is otherwise sound, and mooseproof,
they tell me. A pine-needled path leads to the toilet
shack containing a pit latrine, a coffee can, and
matches in a zip-lock bag.

"Burn your toilet paper in the can," says Janet.

Dinner is made from ingredients in a cooler sitting
out on the makeshift verandah: baked salmon
quesadillas and salad. A propane-heated outdoor shower
guarantees a bath with a view. Janet has twelve years
head start on Robert, yet the pair meld effortlessly
with each other and their surroundings; a shared
history has brought them to this place together. They
have learned to live a harmonious existence with
nature rather than merely survive, and their life
and relationship seems a testament to their ability to
take on the world
as it is, "as God made it", says Robert.

Janet had sent me a printout of "One Way To Heaven",
Robert's illuminating account of a journey few would
attempt: two years earlier he made headlines when he
walked into Australia's Great Sandy Desert intending
to fast for seven days and find answers, and was
rescued 40 foodless days later. The story talks of him
digging a nine-foot hole with his bare hands to find
no water, and the last drop rolling out of a bottle
and evaporating before it got to the lip.

"He got some answers all right," said Janet, who
describes their marriage as spiritual rather than
conventional. I found his story a reflective,
harrowing tale of searching and acceptance. Meeting
Robert and Janet in person completed the final chapter.


"Alaska� I'd love to go there," swooned almost
everyone I spoke to in the days leading up to the trip.

"Alaska - The Last Frontier," said the numberplate on
every rusted 4WD lining the parking lots of
the local fishing and
ski shops.

"Alaska, it's where you go if you want to be in
America but don't," said Derek, a surveyor whose job
took him to all corners of the state in ungodly weather.

"It's where people are bold," said Leslie, who always
had a dream to come here and found a second husband
who had the guts to stick with her.

"No fences, that's what I like," said Richard, a teacher.

Not everyone had a romantic view of the place.

"A lot of depression, abuse, homelessness," said Simon,
a local authority on all things
cold and physical.

I think of the homeless shivering under the concrete
bridges in Eugene, Oregon, several latitudes south,
and wonder how on earth a street person survives up here.

"Many don't," says Leslie. "It's the last place in
America that people end up and it's so hard to arrive
and leave, once you're here you're stuck." She points
to a map showing the single road going north, and south.

We flew first to Anchorage and were met at the airport
by Bike Friday owners Leslie and Derek. Tim, Bike
Friday mechanic, and I carried three bikes and
marketing material, all in 4 suitcases. Work-wise, our
mission was threefold: to present my Cuba by Friday
slide show in Anchorage, to meet owners for social
ride, and to motivate a local bike shop to become a
dealer for Bike Friday. We would then fly to
Fairbanks, several hours north as the moose runs, and
repeat the mission. My personal mission was, of course,
to meet Janet and Robert.

social ride

The Bike Friday Club of Anchorage
meet on a grassy knoll

The first day was a planned social ride in Anchorage.
We made our
way along the fifteen mile Tony Knowles trail to
Kincaid Park, the start of the ride. The trail starts
outside Leslie and Derek's house and snakes through
the Alaskan forest, car-free and tranquil. In winter
it becomes a busy ski commute, with people shushing in
droves on long metal feet. Tony Knowles, they told
me, is a politician and eco-visionary who was
initially ridiculed for proposing such an expensive
luxury as this trail. The chief opponent, on
treading it for the first time, was heard to say, "now
I know what you meant."

At Kincaid Park an impressive dozen or so little-wheeled
stalwarts pulled up in
in the drizzly rain �their SUV's and
unloaded their Bike Fridays to join
the ride.
Our departure was delayed by several

passers-by demanding to know all about the strange bikes.

Jim Burkholder led the way on his red and yellow
Pocket Rocket, and took us by a riverside airfield
studded with bush planes.

"Almost everyone here has a plane of some sort," he
said. A perfect place for a folding Bike Friday, I noted.

A moose sans antlers, was spotted along the trail. A
female. We were warned to stay clear of them, "they'll
stomp on you."


Hurry up and take the @#$%! photo!

Anchorage itself is an austere place, minimalist and
functional, a giant strip mall which appears
permanently battened down for the bleakest of
blusters. I wondered how people toughed it out in the
northernmost towns, like Barrow on the north coast.

"Strange places," said Derek, whose surveying job had
taken him to all corners of the state. He tells me
that oil companies compensate the local indigenous
people handsomely for plundering their land, and the
handouts have led to some serious alcoholism. In
Barrow lives a large Filipino population. I think of
the Philippines with their sun and diving and colored
fishes and wonder how one earth Filipinos would find
themselves up there in the first place, much less cope
with the harsh conditions. But as I discover in my
travels, people find themselves where they find
themselves, and wherever they are they deal with it.

A popular Alaska anecdote is the lack of women for the
available men, or if you look at it another way, the
bounty of men for the few available women. I am told
this gender imbalance is less pronounced these days.
Lurid strip joints had popped up on desolate corners
to dam the flash flood of excess testosterone whenever
the oil rig workers and men of the sea came in for a
(heavy) breather. THE ODDS ARE GOOD, BUT THE GOODS
ARE ODD chortled a dog on the cover of a locally
penned book entitled
"Catch and Release: a Guide to
Alaska Men".

catch and release book

Janet presented me with my personal copy

in case I found myself thumb twiddling one evening.
Written by Mesdames Haigh, Lammers and Walsh, three
wily women of the north who had clearly found a way to
live in Alaska and not go nuts, it talks about sheds,
discarded file cabinets, duct tape, 5-gallon drums,
dog sleds, pick-up trucks, fishing tackle and more
duct tape. The women's secret: if you can't beat 'em,
join 'em. The threesome fish, build houses, raise
dogs, fly planes, just like the men in the book.

jerome and plane

An Alaska man with Air Llama and plane instead of pick-up truck and duct tape

From the book:

"When a woman gets off the plane the whole town
knows." - A Kodiak fisherman.

"She walked right by me without saying hello. That's
the last time I fix her four wheeler." - Alaska

"An Alaska man's matching set of luggage: two
cardboard boxes sealed with duct tape." - A mother

"When she came to visit I gave her one drawer in the
file cabinet and two in the bureau. After all, a woman
needs a place for her stuff." - Alaska man on
understanding women.

"I keep ice-cream in there during the winter." -
Alaska man on why he keeps a file cabinet in his yard.

Buy the book, it's more than a dig at/celebration of
Alaska men, it's actually an excellent insider's
travel guide to the whole state.

The Bicycle Shop was the venue for the Cuba by Friday
slide presentation, and attracted a very decent
audience of around 25 people. I discovered that due
the relative isolation of Alaska, anyone who makes the
effort to go there and offer entertainment, will have
the locals coming out of the woodwork, sheds,
duct-taped SUV's.


The Enhanced Raindrop Technique:
The essential oils are dropped on the spine one by one
and gently worked into the surrounding tissue. Then,
applying a warm, wet compress will amplify the action,
and effects of the essential oils� Lakota Indians and Dr Gong Yong,
who developed this
technique to boost and support the immune system..."

- Ad on noticeboard in the Fairbanks laundromat


- Ad beside the one above


view from Janet's

What a welcome at Fairbanks Airport!

We flew to Fairbanks and were met by a spectacular
bicycle taxi: two tandems hitched with Bob trailers
and captained by Rocky Reifenstuhl and Simon Rakower
of All Weather Sports.
Janet was also there to greet us, which was just as
well, as the four suitcases did not quite squeeze into
the trailers. Curse, and bless, the automobile.

Our captains took us on a disorienting journey through
back tracks to AWS, the headquarters of renowned
winter sports authority, Simon. Simon specializes in
ultra fat bicycle rims, designed to get cyclists
across the tundra in one piece. And just because it
rains, pours and avalanches doesn't mean people go
into hibernation.

Rocky, I learned, is a master of the hardcore
Iditasport race, a human-powered version of the famous
dog-sled-powered Iditarod, a grueling 1000-mile dash
from Anchorage
to Nome, with no support vehicle or
Motel 6 in sight.
The Iditasport is also several-hundred

self-supported mile dash through foul conditions by
bike, foot or snowshoe, and Rocky's won it seven
times. If having one star athlete in the household isn't
enough, his wife Gail is also a sponsored überathlete,
having won the women's division of Iditasport and
several other races. I fantasized about Rocky tackling
the race next year on his AirGlide, imagining the
small wheels carving out a perfect 20" hole in the ice
and he disappearing under the lid just like in the

At Bike Friday we seem to be lucky to have customers
offer to shelter us for the night, and in this case,
Tim and I were holed up in Rocky's sauna, which proved
perfect for keeping snug but not so good for a spat.

The Cuba by Friday slideshow was staged at the local
library, and around 20 people turned up. Both here and
in Anchorage the evening had all the hallmarks of a
Bike Friday gathering: fanatical owners arriving with
their Bike Fridays and answering all the usual
questions about small wheels and how it goes into the
suitcase, curious passers by, smirking 700cc riders,
skeptics who would never buy a Bike Friday in a pink
fit, skeptics who would, and several prospects who
have been "thinking about one for years". They're the
perennial ones in the Bike Friday database, and
despite being harassed at least yearly in the nicest
possible way to buy a bike, cheerfully choose to
remain within our clutches. "Is this a marketing
person� Oh, its Bike Friday? That's OK then" is
fortuunately, the way most people answer the phone
when we call.

As people were merrily test riding the bikes in the
carpark an old fella turned up on a rusty yellow
clunker. He looked like the guys you see pushing their
bikes on the bike path outside the BF factory in
Eugene, usually with a metal basket attached front
and rear for their stuff. "That guy could well be a
millionaire, that's what Alaska men do," sniggered
Janet with genuine affection. Unlike in Eugene, she added.
Judging by the way he scrutinized the full color
Bike Friday catalog I would not dare argue.


He could be a millionaire...

Downtown Fairbanks is a compact place, a single main
street lined with stores selling native Indian bone
carvings, masks and Russian doll-within-dolls. I
dismantled a giant one that kept shrinking and
shrinking until I held a speck of painted wood in my
fingers. What does one actually DO with this, apart
from take it apart and put back it together? I
wondered. That very thought made me realize I might
have already spent too much time living to work in
America, busy being a human doing.

The Fairbanks social ride took off from the doorstep
of All Weather Sports, attracting a small band of Bike
Friday owners and "big wheelers", as I have come to
call regular bike riders on account of having ridden a
Bike Friday exclusively for almost 6 years. One of
them was Jorge, a Venezuelan whose wife is a sergeant
in the military, stationed in Fairbanks for 2 years.
He tells me he suffers from the "frio" (cold)
climactically as well as socially. He is a long, long
way from sunny South America.

"I lived in Pennsylvania for 2 years and never met my
neighbors," he says.� Is Madam Jorge happy here?

"No, but the money is good and we can feed and clothe
our two daughters."

He is dealing with it, getting on with life, just like
the Filipinos in Barrow.

Another rider is Clive, an out-of-work musician who
came to Alaska to start a band, which promptly
disbanded. He is now into his seventh year here,
wondering how and why. Alaska, a place that is hard to
enter, hard to leave, depending on your individual

Richard and Nina, in contrast, have a good life here.
Professional teachers, Nina is a school counselor
and Richard came here to
avoid fences. Nina says
kids have a lot of problems because they get bored in
Fairbanks, and
lose motivation. I remember being the same
kind of kid, growing up with the Australian bush at
my doorstep, kookaburras and lorikeets landing on the
porch for piece of toast, and finding it all so
thoroughly boring. Three score and ten years later I
am pining to be in wilderness, if I could just work
out how to pay the rent while doing so.

lynette races simon

"OY! Get a bike!"

Simon races me on his elite titanium Seven bike, which
probably cost about that in K's. I remark that Bike
Friday seems unique from other bike brands in that it
is less about hardware and more about people. Ah, says
Simon, there is a quirky culture in the Seven circles�

"I was on a ride and a woman was told she'd have to
queue for service. She flew off the handle and said,
I'm not just anyone. I have a titanium Seven!"

I thought about trying that line on the Tour de France
VIP area with my Bike Friday, but I guess I'd better
wait until Lance buys one. It's not enough these days that
Phil Liggett, Greg Lemond, the 'winningest
American' Davis Phinney and Rocky Reifenstuhl have one...

Simon and I end up talking life and fat rims in the
excellent local coffee house, owned and run by a New
Yorker. Gourmet wraps, giant cookies, Key Lime Pie, it
is a flash of big city life in the tundra. I remember
someone telling me that to live a good life all you
need is a nice pad and a good deli and video store
within walking distance. When we arrived Janet took
us to a noveau Greek restaurant, brilliant and
reasonable. Just down the road we ate at a good Thai
place, complete with real brass cutlery that only
someone from Thailand would own. I could see how I
could warm to a life here. One good coffee house, one
good Greek, one good Thai, and a whole lot of unfenced
nature as far as the eye can see.
Oh, and one, good,
all-weather folding bicycle.

lynette and simon in cafe

Yes Simon, the world would be a far, far better place with big, fat rims...

Copyright 2002 Lynette Chiang All rights reserved