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Sojourners for the Geographic have utilized so many kinds of conveyances -- mules, horses, airships, airplanes, canoes, sailing yachts, cars, trucks, motorcycles, their own legs and feet -- that editors sometimes begin to think there are no more new ideas for journeys. Then in comes a fellow like Roman Dial. He and his friend Carl Tobin do "hell biking." That's just what Tobin named their freewheeling way of traveling the Alaskan wilderness on mountain bicycles. Hell biking.
Dial, a writer and professor of ecology and conservation biology at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, pitched this proposal to Geographic adventure editor Peter Miller in 1995: Three fit and borderline-fanatic wilderness-loving dudes would take their bikes and all their gear and cover 775 miles along one of North America's great cordilleras -- the Alaska Range, which stretches from the Canadian border and arcs around southern Alaska. The feat had never been done, and the story would appeal to the young and the strong, a demographic group the magazine was eager to attract. Miller took Dial upstairs to see the other editors.
Slushing through soft ice, three adventurers cross the 6,000-foot-high Black Rapids-Susitna Pass during their 775-mile expedition across the Alaska Range by mountain bike. (Photo by Bill Hatcher)
Bicycling stories had fallen from favor at the Geographic, perhaps because biking did not seem dignified or exciting. Dial argued that mountain biking gives a better feel for the land than hiking. "When you hike," he said, "you just put one foot in front of the other. With wilderness mountain biking, there are no marked trails, no routes on maps, and you can't bike everywhere you can walk. So you have to tune into the landscape and feel it. It's like watching for moguls when you ski.
"And biking is a joyous experience. It's so improbable that this thing on two wheels is able to stand up to begin with, and when people see you on a bike, they connect to their youth and their memories."
Putting it that way, Dial got his story, "Biking Across the Alaska Range: A Wild Ride," May 1997, written by Dial and photographed by Dial and freelance photographer Bill Hatcher, who biked along with the group in key stretches. The others were Tobin, also an environmental science professor in Alaska, and Paul Adkins, a professional mountain-bike guide from West Virginia. The journey took seven weeks, along glaciers and creek beds of a country so hostile that it was barely passable on foot. It became an endurance test against woolly weather that kicked up snowstorms in midsummer and miles of scrub brush that forced the men to pick up bikes and haul them on their backs.
The concern that bikers would scare away game proved unfounded. "I see more game on the bike than when I'm walking," said Dial. "We've had a female bear come after us, bearing down and trying to scatter us. They can sprint 30 miles an hour, and there's no way you can get away on the bike if they really want you -- the terrain is too rough. But the bears' behavior strikes me as something between curious and fearful. We've had caribou run at us, as close as ten yards, then bolt away. Once in the Brooks Range a pack of wolves followed us."
Of the journey, Dial wrote:
"When luck rides with us, our path rolls across a silky smooth valley bottom, following a caribou trail incised into the tundra by cloven hoofs, then merges with bear trails as we muscle up a ridge of polished granite slabs. When our luck runs out, we stumble through alder brush as thick as an arm that snags our handlebars, seats, pedals, and, if we're not careful, an eye or two."
And at the end it was journey as an art form. "They say the left side of the brain handles intellectual and logical aspects of thinking," Dial told me, "and the right side the emotional and creative. When I do my adventures, I use the right side. I feel my adventures are creative. Alaska is this big landscape, and I paint bold strokes across it. It's like an artist's canvas for me, since there are no trails and no roads, and the creative challenge is to find an aesthetic way across."
Excerpted by permission of National Geographic Society. Copyright © 1997 National Geographic Society.