Bikepacking from Colorado to Alaska - Emily Dell
I love Emily Dell's stories. Whether she's recalling a stranger's homemade cookies or the time she was nearly caught in a men's locker room, post-shower, by an entire hockey team, she brings the delight and humor of bicycle travel to this interview. Emily's adventures make me want to try bikepacking... the more hard-core, light-weight, off-road version of bicycle touring.
Emily, how did you fall in love with bikepacking?
My brother Joey took me on my first bikepacking trip in Utah during Thanksgiving Break in 2014. I rented a fat bike from Durango Cyclery, and they also hooked me up with a frame bag and panniers. We took so many Thanksgiving leftovers - all of it! I'm talking pie, whipping cream, turkey, potatoes, gravy, EVERYTHING. We ate like kings. It was a loop in Beef Basin, near Indian Creek, that ends in Canyonlands. I think it was around 85 miles, absolutely beautiful.
“My brother Joey took me on my first bikepacking trip in Utah… around 85 miles, absolutely beautiful.”
How did that first trip inspire your future travels?
It was such an eye opening experience. I thought, why would you hike anywhere when you can have this awesome mechanism carry all of your stuff?! After that trip I bought my Surly Straggler that I rode to work and all around Durango, Colorado where I went to Fort Lewis College for the next four years. I got a cheap rack and nice Arkel panniers, which I continue to test with just how much stuff I can shove in them.
“I thought, why would you hike anywhere when you can have this awesome mechanism carry all of your stuff?!”
What inspired you to cycle from Colorado to Alaska?
Right after my first bikepacking trip I watched a documentary called "Ride the Divide" which follows people doing the Great Divide mountain bike race. That was my inspiration to do a long trip. I told my brother I was going to ride back to Alaska once I graduated school. At the time I thought I would take my cyclocross bike and ride on pavement, doing it solo. But the next year Joey said we were going to buy mountain bikes and ride the Great Divide!
How did you prepare for such a long bikepacking tour?
I was nervous because the route looked hard, and I'm a weak mountain biker. Joey did all of the planning (what a good brother I have!) which took out a lot of the stress. I started training a month before we left; I did a lot of uphill rides around Durango and long distance. I bought my Salsa Fargo bike five months before we left for the Divide tour, and by June I felt really good and strong. We left Durango June, 10, 2017 (or somewhere close to there?) and it took us July 27, 2017. About seven weeks total.
“Joey did all of the planning (what a good brother I have!) which took out a lot of the stress.”
What did you pack?
I’m amazed at how little you need to get by. In everyday life I have all of these objects that surround me in my apartment: from cookware to furniture, clothes, books, toiletries, all of this stuff. All of these things I think I need- but on a bike you need so little. One metal cup that you can use for cooking your Top Ramen, a sleeping pad and bag, a small tool kit, headlamp, tent, food and water and you're good to go.
I love the idea of being totally self-supported with the bike carrying all of my gear, food, and water. I love how far I can get- the only thing I need is burger fuel. I was also surprised at how delicious ramen noodles in instant mashed potatoes can be! I ate a lot of that.
“I’m amazed at how little you need to get by… One metal cup for cooking your Top Ramen, a sleeping pad and bag, a small tool kit, headlamp, tent, food and water and you're good to go.”
What else surprised you about bicycle travel?
I thought it would be a lot more difficult to get into the rhythm of long touring, but after a week it felt so normal to camp every night outside, wake up, and cycle for 70 miles.
What were some of your biggest challenges of the Great Divide bike tour?
I think anytime you start a tour getting your gear dialed in can be frustrating and challenging. You've got all of this stuff you need and very limited space. We did not have racks with panniers on the Great Divide so it really cuts back on storage space. Other than that I had a great bike that was reliable - the Salsa Fargo and a tubeless tire set up. There were days where mentally I was struggling, wanting a break, hating the headwinds, but it never lasted long because I would see some cool wildlife like the pronghorn antelope of the Great Divide Basin, or some kind lady would offer us homemade cookies at an RV pull off.
“There were days where mentally I was struggling, wanting a break… but it never lasted long.”
What were some of your juiciest rewards?
While riding through Canada we found a wild raspberry patch that was about the most delicious find ever! I love finishing a short trip (like three days) and eating a huge meal! I feel like food is so important on these trips, as it's the fuel that makes the body go. There is something so great about that first meal afterwards. (Or maybe I'm just always hungry...)
Did you cycle with a partner, a group, or solo? How do you feel the presence or absence of other people affected your trip?
I've done short three-day solo trips in Ketchikan / Baja / Utah / Colorado and have always felt safe. I know basic bike mechanics, which helps. I've also done lots of trips with my brother and his friends which is always challenging, as I'm the slowest. But it's good to be pushed. I did one ladies’ trip with two of my friends in Utah which was such a blast. Claire's derailleur stopped functioning so we had to do an hour of troubleshooting to get it working. We walked away from that trip feeling very accomplished.
“I did one ladies’ trip with two of my friends in Utah which was such a blast… we walked away feeling very accomplished.”
What are some of your favorite memories from your bicycle tours?
On the Great Divide trip we got lost in the Wyoming Great Divide Basin. It was a whole afternoon of climbing over locked cattle gates, while our food and water got lower and lower. At one point we found this house that was all closed up for the season with a well outside where we filled up. By the time we found the highway to town it was around 11pm. We’d ridden 107 miles that day. As luck would have it there was a 24-hour McDonalds open. I have never eaten so much or so fast! I went back up to the counter, like, three times.
That night we found the fairgrounds and slept next to what we thought was an empty shed. In the morning we could hear pigs inside! We were woken up by this lady walking her two little dogs. She said, "I know you don't know me from Adam, but I live near here if you want breakfast and a shower!" It was just perfect!
“We got lost in the Wyoming Great Divide Basin. It was a whole afternoon of climbing over locked cattle gates, while our food and water got lower and lower.”
We got really good at urban camping in all of these small towns, sleeping in baseball dugouts or next to the train tracks. In one little town we slept next to the hockey rink. My brother went inside during practice super early and showered. When he came back out he said no one was at the counter and he was sure it would be fine if I showered. I go in and there isn't a men / women shower room. It's just these rows of locker rooms labeled with colors. So I pick one! Right when I finish and get dressed, who walks in but the entire men’s hockey team getting out of practice. I have never felt so lucky before, as I had just finished dressing!
“We got really good at urban camping… sleeping in baseball dugouts or next to the train tracks.”
What did you learn about this country?
People can be so dang nice. Complete strangers bought us meals, gave us beers, or shared stories/camp fires/advice. I was blown away by these people! They would go out of their way to hear about what we were doing and why- then would insist on feeding us/sharing shelter in their RV during a thunderstorm/giving us cookies and tea. People were so generous and kind. Watching the news makes you forget about that, but there are some really amazing people in this world.
When people expressed concern/fear for what you were doing, how did that affect you?
Lots of people told us how crazy we were! They would say that our parents must be nervous wrecks and how they would never let their kids do a trip like that. But lots of people also said how cool it was, how they wish they could do the same thing. I think my mom was just happy Joey & I were doing it together, because we would look out for each other.
“Lots of people told us how crazy we were! But lots of people also said how cool it was, how they wish they could do the same thing.”
What preparation, advice, or tips can you offer to other women who are considering bike touring for the first time?
I think going on these big trips can be more of a mental challenge than physical. I don't like looking at total miles, I like taking it in small pieces. When you get to a big climb just put one foot in front of another. It's okay to be slow and take your time!
Here are some of my favorite resources, too:
Lael's Globe of Adventure: www.laelwilcox.com
Steve Fassbinder: www.republicofdoom.com
Revelate Designs: http://www.revelatedesigns.com/
“I think going on these big trips can be more of a mental challenge than physical. I don't like looking at total miles, I like taking it in small pieces.”
How do you keep your love of long-distance biking alive, while living on an island with forty miles of road?
I take what I can get in the summers and plan winter trips. A favorite ride is going out to Knudson Cove in the summer and grabbing a nice cold beverage before heading back to town. I also love going over to Gravina and riding the gravel roads. I'm going back to the Baja peninsula in February to do the southern loop with another Ketchikan lady.
What are some things that help you feel more comfortable as a cyclist?
I love my high-visibility vest my friend Billy got me. I've got super nice front and rear bike lights, and of course my helmet! Basic bike mechanics also helps a lot, knowing how to fix a flat, doing preventative bike maintenance, changing your brake pads - all super easy to do and learn with Youtube!