A couple of years ago I was biking through snowy, cold woods. It was midday January in Alaska. I was with Wes, and we were a couple hours north of where we live. Even just a little Interior like that, the landscape vastly changes – more low-lying rolling hills versus stark mountain views. Ponds and lakes dot the landscape, easily seen from a plane but linked together only by a trail network on the ground.
Off-key yipping and howling of the occasional dog sled team echoes through the woods there. The trails are packed by snowmachines which leave a patterned track. The forest is peaceful, punctuated only by the occasional crew of snowmachiners revving and zipping through. Otherwise, you’ll see dog mushers, the occasional walkers, and skiers.
Then, there’s us.
Fat tire bikes are wide and slow. The big tires create flotation. The fluffier the snow on the trail, the more air you have to let out of your tire to create traction. That day, the trail pack was pretty hard, which is nice. It helped that it was a chilly, but not unrideable 6 degrees. The cold temps helped lock in the snow groom created by the snowmachines.
It’s weird how living in a place with so much winter, my sense of what’s okay outdoor recreation weather is a tad skewed. I start putting the kibosh on sustained outdoor activity at -20.
What’s also weird is that, even though fat biking is and can be a calming activity, the actual experience is often loud from the sound of bikes on snow, and sometimes grueling. In temperatures like that, I’ll have at least one balaclava over my face to protect my cheeks and lungs from the extreme temperatures. Condensation naturally accrues as I breathe, and soon I have those trademark frosty white eyelashes.
Pedaling over snow with two wide tires is also naturally difficult, because the traction means it takes that much more effort to keep going forward. It’s simply slow going, but that’s not for lack of sustained movement. The little hills created by riding onto and off of ponds at their bank push my legs into higher gear, and even with the frigid air I’ll start to sweat.
So even though my husband and I were together, we weren’t talking unless we were stopped. We did pull off to the side on part of the trail that ran across a lake once to let a dog mushing team go by. We watched the dogs pulling on their line, and marveled at how amazing it is to be in Alaska where this is normal.
We also paused at decision points, where the trail forked. It was at one of these stops that I really felt my heart beating, and looked around.
Light in Alaska in January is scarce, especially the farther north you go. That day, it was “high” noon and while the sun wasn’t high, it was a clear blue sky. Light filtered through snow-laden trees surrounding us, filtering blue and purple shadow right alongside creamy yellow onto the sparkling snow. I could feel all of this color, contrast, and light hitting my brain and massaging it into instantaneous, clear-as-day sensations of pure joy. The joy was prolonged by that feeling of my heart working, thumping right there under my layers in my chest; the joy was compounded by my sudden intense feeling of gratitude for my body, the day, and the activity that brought me right there, right to that moment.
It’s not like we don’t go biking in the woods a lot. Winters are long. We get out as a means of physical, but almost more, emotional health. I’ve had lots of good moments in the woods. But that one stuck out to me.
I think the circumstances that invited and sustained this experience are something along the following:
- The ability to be out there and riding at all, and gratitude for that;
- Hard work and how it created heat where I needed it most and brought me to a beautiful place,
- Long-term lack of access to a key resource (sun) followed by seeing it clearly for the first time in a while,
- A willingness to simply take in my surroundings with all of my senses, without analyzing or thinking behind or ahead.
This is the year I’m finally constructing and bringing online the mobile art studio and gallery. This story keeps coming to mind as a feeling I’m longing to inhabit, both as I await and take this next big step.