By Brooke Larsen and Alastair Baglee
Brooke Larsen and Kailey Kornhauser are bicycle riding across Alaska. Unsupported and self-propelled, they recently won a ‘Lael Rides Alaska’ women’s scholarship to ride 1001 miles from the coastal town of Seward in the south, all the way to Deadhorse and the Arctic Ocean in search of stories about climate change.
In Part 1 we saw Brooke and Kailey reach their journey’s half way point at Fairbanks. Now the real challenge awaits as they head north to the town of Deadhorse on Alaska’s North Slope high in the Arctic along the remote, steep and unpaved Dalton Highway.
Before setting off on the Dalton Highway, we listened to more stories from folks in Fairbanks and reflected on the impacts of a warming world we had witnessed thus far. We couldn’t stop thinking about our conversation with permafrost researchers at Eight Mile Lake off of Stampede Road, not far from Denali National Park and the place where Chris McCandless of Into the Wild died. Once we reached the research site, after biking up a series of short but painfully steep hills, we had to walk along narrow wood planks over thawing, muddy ground. We learned from the Northern Arizona University research team that Alaska has always had to deal with seasonal uneven ground, but now areas that once remained frozen are starting to thaw.
A rapidly changing landscape
Historically permafrost has acted as a carbon sink, but as temperatures warm, permafrost thaws and becomes a carbon source. This is a big deal. Arctic permafrost currently stores more carbon than all the carbon humans have emitted into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. While thawing permafrost escalates global climate change, it also has serious implications for the land and ecology of the Arctic. Drainages will change course and composition, the ground will sink, tree lines will move further up in elevation, and animals will change migration patterns. The people that rely on these lands for subsistence and spirituality will lose their way of life.
The researchers all reflected on the emotions of studying such dire science. I remembered a term I had heard from a climate scientist back home: Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The term resonated with the team, and some questioned whether instead of measuring data they should be in the street demanding action. However, Megan, one of the lead researchers, concluded, “We contribute in the ways we can.”
In Fairbanks, we continued to learn more about the changes rapidly occurring across Alaska from Scott Rupp, the Deputy Director of the International Arctic Research Center. Scott tries to quantify uncertainty by building climate change models that can help Alaskans adapt to a warming world. He noted, “Here, there is such an immediate need for information that there isn’t a lot of time to think about impending doom.” He emphasized that climate change is already impacting almost everybody across the state, even if they don’t realize it yet. Personally, he’s observed big changes in wildfire in the area. While his models show that climate change will increase wildfires in the Boreal forests of central Alaska, Scott has witnessed the increase first hand while living in Fairbanks the past 20 years.
Beyond the science, though, we also heard stories from those on the frontlines. Esau Sinnok, an intern with Native Movement and a student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, comes from the Inupiaq community of Shishmaref. Melting sea ice and rising seas have pushed the 600-person Inupiaq community to repeatedly vote to relocate since 1973. Esau expressed skepticism about the community receiving the 250 million dollars needed to relocate. He said, “FEMA won’t do anything until after it falls apart.” The lack of federal assistance stings even deeper when considering that the Inupiaq people didn’t live permanently in Shishmaref prior to colonization. It was an important place for hunting sea life, but not a place for year-round inhabitance. Esau is the lead plaintiff in the case Sinnok v. State of Alaska—a climate lawsuit brought by 16 Alaskan youth. He is focusing on quickly finishing his studies at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks so he can continue to fight for his people. “It’s my responsibility to go back to my community. All 600 people raised me,” he said.
1,000 miles on the Dalton Highway
After meeting with people for a few days in Fairbanks, we finally set off for the most challenging part of our 1,000-mile ride: the Dalton Highway. We were pleasantly surprised by the road condition. Most blogs make the Dalton seem horrible. There was some loose gravel and potholes, but a decent amount of the supposedly unpaved road was paved, and for the most part, the gravel was in better condition than the deep, sandy unpaved roads we bike in the American Southwest. What challenged us more was the road’s grade. In the section known as the “rollercoaster,” hills were so steep we often had to get off and walk our bikes. When we slowed down, mosquitos and gnats swarmed, forcing us to quickly pull out our bug head nets.
The vast wildness of the surrounding landscape kept our spirits high. We often biked until 10 p.m. or later, our path lit by the midnight sun. Over each hill, the Brooks Range revealed more of itself in layers of blue, green, and gray. However, alongside feelings of awe, we also felt grief. While we admired the region’s beauty, we also felt anxiety about the Trans-Alaska Pipeline snaking along a few yards from our pedal strokes. The further north we went, the closer we came to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a sacred region for the Gwich’n People under imminent threat from oil drilling.
Halfway through our journey, we reached Wiseman, where we stayed with Jack Reakoff, a famous local trapper, hunter, and tour guide whose family moved to Wiseman before the pipeline was built. He let us stay in one of his cabins, ceiling covered in sheep and caribou antlers, a grizzly bear head roaring down on us. We bathed in the Middle Fork Koyukuk River that flowed a couple hundred meters from his yard. Luckily the weather was beautiful, hovering around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.6C), making the bitter cold water seem more inviting. When we returned to the cabin, we were greeted by a familiar face. My partner, Galen, was in the middle of editing a film on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and he couldn’t resist the chance to return to a part of the country he loved.
The next day we completed the final climb of the journey over Atigun Pass—the highest highway pass in Alaska. We felt such relief when we reached the top and couldn’t wait for a couple days of cruising through the Arctic. However, shortly after we reached the summit, ominous clouds surrounded us. As we descended, rain and mud soaked us. About fifteen miles down from the summit, Kailey’s brakes went out, pushing her into a panic attack as the fog became denser, the rain poured harder, and temperatures neared freezing.
The next few days only got colder and wetter. Visibility was so bad that truck drivers pulled over and threw us their vests. We thought the infamous mosquitos would pose the biggest challenge in the Arctic. Instead, temperatures dropped so low that the swarms nearly disappeared. When we finally reached Deadhorse, it was hard to feel celebratory in a town built solely for the oil and gas industry, especially after a miserable couple days of biking. However, spirits rose soon enough as we filled our bellies with warm food, took long hot showers, and slept.
Meeting scientists and campaigners
Kailey and I reached the final destination of our tour not by bike, but plane. Our flight back to Fairbanks (where we’d fly out from to return home) had a layover in Barrow. We decided to extend our layover in this northern-most U.S. city to interview a few more people. Last year, temperatures reached such abnormally high levels in Barrow that algorithms removed data because it seemed unreal. We spent time with Bryan Thomas at NOAA’s Barrow Observatory, one of four NOAA observatories that contribute data to NOAA’s climate models and the famous Keeling Curve. Bryan works tirelessly to ensure that data collection instruments are functioning and working accurately. Regarding the importance of this long term observation, he said, “If we weren’t watching, we wouldn’t know.” He doesn’t believe he will see the Keeling Curve start to go down in his lifetime, concluding, “just like justice, the curve bends eventually, but it takes a long time.”
Alexander, a local young Inupiaq and the manager of the Airport Inn where we stayed, highlighted coastal erosion as his main climate change concern. He talked about the trifecta of rising seas, melting sea ice, and thawing permafrost that puts Inupiaq communities at particular risk. He discussed how melting sea ice not only has impacts on sea life, but also destabilizes subsistence livelihoods. Whaling is central to Inupiaq culture, and less sea ice makes this traditional subsistence practice increasingly dangerous and difficult. He reflected, “It affects us economically and spiritually.” Before we left, he let us try some muktuk from this year’s whale hunt.
Despite the dire situation, youth organizers in Barrow, Ana, Muck, and Naomi, left us with hope. They recently graduated from high school and are headed off to colleges across the country in the fall of 2018. Ana and Muck have been part of Alaska Youth for Environmental Action (AYEA). They learned how to lobby their representatives and found that communities across Alaska face similar challenges when it comes to climate change and environmental justice. They expressed concern about rising sea levels and the resulting coastal erosion. The ocean is central to their lives. Muck was born in the Philippines and moved with his family to Barrow when he was five. He said, “The ocean has always been a big part of my life.” Much of the North Slope’s economy is closely tied to the oil and gas industry. People rarely speak against the industry out of fear of losing jobs or heat to their homes. When asked about the conflict between climate action and the dominance of the oil industry, Ana responded, “We are an environmental paradox.” These young people find hope in groups like AYEA and young people standing up across the world. When asked how they feel about the pressure put on their generation, they all replied, “Empowered.” Social media has allowed them to stay connected to young organizers nationwide. Even though temperatures were well below freezing, they still stood outside their school for 17 minutes in coordination with the national March for Our Lives movement earlier this year.
Overall, Kailey and I left Alaska full of gratitude for the opportunity to bike across such a wild, threatened place and meet inspiring people. The journey empowered us not only as women cyclists, but also young people concerned about a warming world. The climate challenges facing Alaska are daunting. Few places provide such a powerful glimpse into how human-caused climate change is already here. However, alongside the doom and gloom, Alaskans are rising. Their resistance, resilience, and adaptability show that a commitment to place, love of community, and a locally-driven just transition away from fossil fuels are our best bets at securing a thriving, regenerative future.
You can read about each segment of our ride in-depth on our website blog. We will be posting reflections from Alaska each week, with the goal of continuing to share stories from future rides.
Thanks to Brooke Larsen for sharing her stories, head to her Instagram to see more pictures from the trip Instagram.
Cover photo by Galen Knowles, used with permission.
Read more about how climate change is impacting Alaskan communities on our network: