Alaska 2008: Unicycling the Haul Road
A Tale of Endurance, Luck, Alaskan Hospitality, One Wheel and a Humorous Pair of Balls
This trip has truly been the most epic adventure of my life thus far. Even with rigorous training, months of research and nights full of unsettled nerves before the trip, nothing could have prepared me for the gravity of this adventure.
About Me: My name is Mike Welch. At the time of this trip I was 25 years old. I was born in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, and moved to Pueblo, Colorado at the age of six. Growing up in Colorado was fantastic. My father had his mid-life-crisis in this phase of my life and instead of buying a Harley, he bought a mountain bike. I was only ten when this happened and quickly got caught up in his craze and I have some scars to prove it. Colorado was the perfect place to really get serious about outdoor life. My father took me on some great 11,000 foot plus climbs before I even turned ten.
Unfortunately when I was twelve the family packed up and moved to Northern Indiana. Flat ground for as long as the eye could see. I faked my way through high school, only being propelled through it by my obsession with music. Naturally, I went to college as far away as possible in Iowa. I stayed in Iowa only for a year. Then met a girl in Ohio, followed her there to Ohio Northern University. In my over romantic nature I broke up with her as soon as I got there. By nature of private school tuition I wound up broke in less than a year, and then ended up at Wright State University. I very quickly got sick of that scene, and planned to move back to Iowa, but then met another girl in Ohio. I got a quick admission to the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music, went broke again, and transferred to the University of Akron. Then I became really broke, and dropped out of school.
After my academic disaster of an undergraduate college tour I started working for Ohio Citizen Action, a non-profit environmental group, as a canvasser. I spent the next 9 months knocking on doors around Ohio, upstate New York, and Northern Florida. I learned how to talk to many different types of people, but I got sick of it pretty quick. Then following a girl again, I moved to Cincinnati in the fall of 2004, and worked a lot of strange jobs. First I was a telemarketer, an easy road to alcoholism and depression. From there I went even further down the labor food chain by working at an auto parts factory. After taking my Christmas bonus and free turkey in November, I quit. I ended up working as a music educator and child portrait photographer through the summer of 2005. Then I got lucky.
A Broadway show I have always been a fan of gave me a call and asked me to send in an audition video. Instead I drove to where the show is based in Bloomington, Indiana the next day and won the gig. Part of this gig was learning to unicycle and play trombone at the same time. The one wheel addiction began there.
On the tour after unicycling for about three months, I took the company owned unicycle out of the theater in Madison, Wisconsin and explored the college town streets. I loved riding on the street, and even began barhopping on the wheel. After a few nights of using the unicycle to pickup chicks I even got a DUI warning.
After a few more months of touring and using the wheel to barhop and pick up chicks (my friends dubbed the unicycle the pussy wheel) show management got wind of what I was doing with their unicycle. They wouldn’t let me take it home at night anymore. So I quickly bought a Torker DX from unicycle.com and hit the streets again. In February the tour ended up in Thousand Oaks, California, just at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. I went for a hike one day, and thought the terrain looked rideable, and the next day, my obsession with rough terrain unicycling began. I spent the next month in the Los Angeles area spending most of my free time exploring the Santa Monica Mountain’s many trails.
After that tour I taught music for the summer and got married in late August of 2005. Marriage put a serious damper on my adventure related activities. To escape I took employment on a cruise ship that ran up and down the West Coast of Mexico and through the Panama Canal. There were plenty of great off road unicycling opportunities in Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and throughout the Caribbean. A month after my contract on the ship was up, I ended up on a Japanese tour with Blast! In Japan, unicycling was the only way for me to get anywhere. I commuted to work everyday, continued to barhop and started to gain interest in street style freestyle riding.
In September of 2007 I became the first person to unicycle the decent of Mt. Fuji. It felt great doing something more on the extreme side of riding. Heading home from Japan it became pretty clear that my marriage had fallen apart due to my constant nomadic existence. Shortly into rehearsals for the next North American tour, we separated and divorced. I was liberated and adventure planning began.
The Haul Road adventure originally started as a three week backpacking trip in Thailand. A month later it was very clear I didn’t have the funds to pull this off. From there the trip evolved into a motorcycle trek from Chicago to Invuik in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The flaw with this adventure was that I didn’t have a motorcycle. Change of plans. I thought I would unicycle from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to Invuik. I only had a month between tours. Damn. Not enough time. A member in the cast had told me many times of his dream of driving the Dalton Highway in Alaska. I checked it out. It was a 1000 mile round trip from Fairbanks, Alaska to Deadhorse, the industrial camp that supports the oil fields at the end of the highway at the Arctic Ocean.
After a few weeks of research of weather, road conditions, finding locations to buy supplies along the way, etc… I decided this was the trip for me.
After telling my friends, family and internet unicycle message boards of my plans, the consensus was the same on all fronts: You’re crazy, You could die, It’s too cold: All words of encouragement for me.
I spent the last three months of tour buying up supplies and spending many late nights smoking and researching what else I could expect in Northern Alaska in May. Good news that I found in my research was always fine. But I honestly craved the bad news. Word of harsher conditions really started to get me off. Everyone I talked to at various outdoor stores where I was buying gear told me I was absolutely insane, and I loved it.
Tour ended April 27th in Newport News, Virginia. On April 28th I started heading north. Fly from Newport News to Chicago. Drive from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin. Fly from Madison to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Fly from Minneapolis to Anchorage, Alaska. Fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Myself, a unicycle, and a fifty pound backpack.
I made the mistake of strapping my tent to the outside of my pack in Newport News at the airport. It fell off and was lost. Fuck. After a few hours on the phone it was located and would be delivered to me the night I spent in Chicago. It did not come until five in the morning and I was up at 8am the next day. I knew I could catch up on sleep during the flight north. The longest leg of the flight I spent sitting next to twin one year olds. No Sleep. I showed up in Fairbanks at 2am tired as hell and seriously irate from the yelling of the twins. I did a gear check, packed everything how I wanted it and at 3am, went to sleep in the airport. Security was kind enough to wait two hours before making me leave. Four hours of sleep in two days. A rough start already.
Day One: Only five minutes out of Fairbanks International Airport on Old Airport Road, a heavy wet snow started to fall. Five minutes later I had to stop and put my pack cover on. Ten minutes later, rain suit on. The rain suit I bought said it was breathable; however it was more of a sweat suit than a rain suit. I decided to wait the weather out at the Northern-most Denny’s in the world, only three miles from the airport.
After a fantastic “last meal” I headed out in the wet but slightly lighter snowfall. I made a stop at a sporting goods store on my way out of town to buy bear spray and fuel canisters, which I could not fly with. Everybody at the store told me not to go. It was dangerous and reckless. More encouragement for me.
There‘s a bike path that follows the first mile of the Steese Highway heading north from Fairbanks. After that first mile the bike path follows another road called Farmers Loop Road. In the snow I could not see the intersection, and followed Farmers Loop Road. Of course I did not know this until I saw a sign for the Fairbanks International Airport eight hours later. Fuck. My first emotion was disbelief, than acceptance and then fury. I was on fire! Quick. To the gas station. Forty ounces of beer. Gone. Pizza place. Fed. Feeling better. I decided to spend the night in Fairbanks and found a cute little backpacker’s hostel: Billie’s.
After settling down for the evening I became restless like I do, and headed down the way to a nice little bar with an open mic night I’d noticed on my way towards the hostel. Showing up to a bar on a unicycle will usually guarantee a free beer. In Alaska, you can drink for free off this fact. I’ve never gone to a bar by myself and had as much of a great time as I did that night. So after 4 hours of great conversation and about a dozen drinks, a lovely woman offered to give me a ride back to the hostel. Instead she took me home, and if she did have any intentions, she was disappointed. Thirsty seconds into the door, I was asleep.
Day Two: A fresh early start, and an enormous McDonald’s breakfast. A mile out of town I figured out where I made my error the day before and realized how stupid of a mistake it was. Snow and sleep deprivation cost me an entire day. About eight miles north of town I caught my first glimpse of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline at the visitor’s center and took a few photos.
Eleven miles North of Fairbanks at the junction of the Steese and Elliot Highways lays the little town of Fox, Alaska. I stopped in at the Silver Gulch Brewing Company for a bowl of hot soup. I of course sat at the bar and the three patrons who sat with me all insisted upon buying me a beer when they learned about what I was doing. The beer at the Silver Gulch brewing company is some of the best beer I have ever had; particularly their Porter and IPA. Over the soup and beers every other person in the restaurant said that I should not go north: lots of warnings of foul weather and bears. More words of encouragement.
About a hundred yards north of the beginning of the Elliot highway I was regretting those three beers. I was met in the face by a daunting five and a half mile climb. It was brutal with fresh beer sloshing around in my belly. However, from the top of the hill onward was nice easy down hill riding. At milepost ten a car stopped and asked me what the hell I was doing in the middle of nowhere on a unicycle. I told him of the trip and he suggested I make camp a mile ahead at an undeveloped campground at the Chatanika River. With the beer in my belly I took has advice, made camp and was just starting a fire when the man (I think his name was Ray) pulled up to my site with a hot meal, beers and some road flares for me to take on my journey. If there is any thing I can say about Alaskans it is that they are some of the warmest, most hospitable people in the world, and they know how to drink. Again, I went to sleep drunk. Total distance traveled: 22 miles.