By Alastair Baglee, Lael Wilcox, Brooke Larsen and Kailey Kornhauser
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.
The scholarship was devised by Lael Wilcox, one of America’s, and indeed the world’s greatest ultra-endurance, long-distance cyclists. With accolades that include setting the women’s record for bicycling (or bikepacking, as it’s called now) the mountainous Tour Divide from Canada to Mexico; overall (men and women) winner of the 2016 Trans Am Bike Race, a self-supported road race across America; and the fastest known time (FKT) on the Baja Divide in Mexico, Lael is a pretty unique athlete. Spectacularly, Lael rides on average 20,000 miles a year. This scholarship is her way to encourage others to challenge themselves and take on the sort of long distance bikepacking adventures that Lael loves so much.
Brooke and Kailey aren’t entirely new to bicycle journeys. Hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah, Brooke spent the summer of 2017 bikepacking for 54 days across the remote, hot, and dry Colorado Plateau—the high desert of the American Southwest. Along the way, she listened to stories about climate change and environmental justice. Kailey joined Brooke for the first two weeks of the journey. In her article “Pedaling the Plateau,” Brooke reflects on the ride and the people she met along the way. The current journey across Alaska is a new chapter in their quest. Brooke tells us more:
We were drawn to the Lael Rides Alaska Scholarship because of the inspiring work Lael has done to grow the women and girls cycling community, as well as the opportunity to grow as cyclists and climate organizers. Alaska has challenging terrain with steep climbs and gravel roads that go through some of the world’s wildest landscapes, making it an ideal place for adventure cycling. However, it also sits at the frontlines of climate change and fossil fuel extraction, providing plenty of stories and tangible examples to learn from as we work for climate justice in our home communities.
When not biking (and even when we are), we focus our academic research and community organizing on climate change and environmental justice. Because Alaska faces many threats from climate change –from rising sea levels to thawing permafrost– and indigenous communities have long experienced the negative impacts of a colonial extractive economy, we found it important to learn about these issues as we biked across the state. We hope by sharing stories from those we meet along the way that we can build empathy, inspire action, and increase awareness.
Watching glaciers melt
For miles leading up to Exit Glacier, signs note where the glacier used to reach. Kenai Fjords National Park Ranger Bill Kane has been visiting and working at the park for the past 25 years. He noted that every October he runs in the Halloween zombie race in the nearby town of Seward. It used to always snow on race day. Now he runs the race in shorts. When we asked how he emotionally copes with witnessing Exit Glacier melt, he responded, “It’s gut wrenching.” We found a mural in town titled “Remembering Exit Glacier.” For this community, climate loss is already tangible.
“What happens to marginalised folks?”
While in Anchorage, staff members from Alaska Conservation Foundation and Pacific Environment shared their thoughts on climate change. One staff member who could only pop his head in for a minute quickly said, “Three things: melting glaciers, beavers moving north, and melting permafrost.” Camille Davis, ACF’s Development Associate, said, “As a black young woman, I think about how we make this work tangible. As climate change affects our earth, what happens to marginalized folks?” DJ Tyson, Pacific Environment’s Arctic Program Assistant, discussed how 90 percent of Alaska’s state revenue comes from oil. He said, “I want to figure out how to get Alaska off fossil fuels.” He then joked, “But I have a degree in Psychology, so I’m not going to figure it out.” Michael Barber, ACF Director, then emphasized that one person doesn’t need to be “smarter than climate change.” He concluded, “Where hope comes from for me is I don’t have to be right. The only thing that matters is what people are going to work on together.”
Landslides and thawing permafrost
David Tomeo is the Education Program Director with Alaska Geographic at the Murie Science and Learning Center in Denali National Park. In 1997, David had his first adventure in Alaska when he and his wife kayaked along the state’s southeast coast for four months. When we asked about climate change in the park, David talked about oozing mud flows, landslides, and dropping roads from thawing permafrost. He also mentioned that as the tree line moves up with warming temperatures, Dall sheep habitat decreases. The park was originally established largely to protect the Dall sheep. As he looked out at the spruce trees surrounding his home, he talked about wildfires but then also concluded, “I feel pretty safe and secure up here. I know I’m not going to be as impacted as much as people in poorer parts of the world or Alaskan coastal communities. I feel lucky.”
We are currently in Fairbanks, just completing the first half of our 1,000 mile journey across Alaska. While in town, we are interviewing folks to learn more about climate change in the Arctic, challenges for indigenous communities, and grassroots organizing for climate justice, before setting off on the second half of our journey along the remote, steep and partly unpaved Dalton Highway. This will be the longest gravel ride either of us have ever done. We look forward to experiencing the Arctic tundra.
We wish Brooke and Kailey good luck on the next leg of their journey. Part 2 of their stories will be published once Brooke and Kailey reach Deadhorse, the end of their journey – stay tuned.