A Dance with Death: My Final Day in Alaska

On Thursday, March 24, 2016, I got off to a slow start. It was my third and final day in Fairbanks, Alaska and I wanted to be sure I made the most of it, so I lay in bed in Teri’s basement, deliberating.


What I wanted most of all was to visit Denali National Park, but it’s some 130 miles from Fairbanks and I didn’t have a car and couldn’t find a good way to get there using public transportation. I did still have that bike with the studded tires, though, and as soon as I remembered this, a plan began to take shape: I could bike to some highpoint and get a good view of Denali from right there in Fairbanks. Excited to get the day’s adventure underway, I grabbed my phone and, flipping onto my stomach in the bed, opened up Google Maps.


It wasn’t easy to find a highpoint in Fairbanks. I’d noticed that the land seemed to rise a little on the western outskirts of town, but compared to the steep, unruly hills of the San Francisco Bay Area through which I cycled nearly every day as part of my commute, the gentle swell in the Earth’s crust just outside of Fairbanks looked to me like soft, forested fabric draped lightly over a baby’s butt. I presumed that cycling to the top of it would be a piece of cake—much to the dismay of my competitive mind—but it was the closest highpoint I could find. I found the area using the topography base-map in Google, picked the first road I saw that cut through the hillside—Ester Dome Road, it was called—and then used Street View to “preview” said road. About halfway up the hill, I found a place where, at least according to Google’s imagery, I could see Denali through the trees. I exited Street View, made note of the nearest cross-street—Henderson Road—and finalized my route.


Alas, hindsight is always 20/20. Not once while plotting my route did I consider that it might be difficult. Nope, I reasoned that a long, slow climb halfway up a small hill had nothing on the short-but-precipitous climbs I did on the daily back home. The thing about most of those Bay Area hill rides that I didn’t think about was that the elevation gain was broken up throughout the climb into steep and mellow segments, sometimes interspersed with little sections of downhill that relieved the legs a bit before the next incline. The climb I mapped out in Fairbanks was just over seven miles long with an elevation gain of 1,309 feet, all of which were gained at a relatively even rate. I was going to be pedaling constantly on a continuous slope—something I was very much unaccustomed to. Factor in the weight of that aluminum- or steel-tubed, ancient, Kona mountain bike, as compared to my full-carbon-framed, Giant racing bike back home, and I was all set for a massive leg workout at the very least. Throw in the fact that the air temperature was below freezing for most of the day, and well, I had myself a terrific recipe for disaster. But it was 2016—I was still enjoying the blissful ignorance of pure luck amidst mortal danger, so, to put it simply, I sent it.


My route


Google's graph of the elevation change throughout the ride


I left Teri’s place about a quarter to noon. The air was 26 degrees Fahrenheit, and the blue sky was riddled with passing clouds, which allowed the chill in the air to penetrate my peril-free thoughts. I reluctantly acknowledged its presence, but I wasn’t too concerned—I figured that after cycling for a while, my moving muscles and pumping heart would warm me up to the point that I welcomed the cold air.


Everything was going swimmingly until I turned onto Ester Dome Road. Thus far, I’d been graced with snowless, well-paved surfaces, but Ester Dome Road was a solid sheet of ice. Rather than inciting fear, however, the sight of that icy road sent goosebumps of glee up my spine and I felt compelled to capture the moment. At 12:20 PM, looking through my camera lens at the tire-groomed ice-sheet gently curving up and away through a thickening forest of leafless birch trees, I ignored the warning implied in the scene. I was, therefore, oblivious to the utter failure of my default fight-or-flight reaction to said warning. In fact, my environmental awareness had been effectively switched off because my mind was wholly occupied with trying to suppress a burgeoning sense of triumph—premature as it was—at the thought of Mountain Man’s face when he saw this undeniable evidence that I had embarked on an epic, solo adventure without him. Yep, that’s right—my petty need to outdo Mountain Man overpowered my primal instincts. It was, then, in a state of fantastical glee and distraction that I began the long, slow climb, defiantly disregarding my cold fingers and numbing toes.


Looking up from the bottom of Ester Dome Road

By 1:00 PM, the temperature had risen to about 30 degrees Fahrenheit in Fairbanks proper. I would estimate that it was a couple degrees cooler where I was riding my bike. At that point, I had grown accustomed to riding on the ice: I had to stay in a lower gear than I would normally have, because—as I quickly discovered—shifting any higher would allow me to put too much force into my pedal strokes, which caused the rear tire to lose traction and slip. As a result of staying in such a low gear on such a heavy bike, I was quickly becoming exhausted and overheated—I was sweating my ass off, wrenching each pedal through its full stroke with quivering calf muscles, and I eventually resorted to humiliating myself by zigzagging from one side of the street to the other to lessen the grade of the climb.


Finally, at 1:05, I stopped to remove my outermost layer. I pulled to the side of the road and dropped the bike to the ground, chest heaving as I mentally chastised myself for struggling so hard on such a silly little hill. Still gulping in the chilly air, I removed my backpack and began shoving my jacket inside of it, but paused as my eyes fell upon a set of heavy boot prints pressed into the soft top layer of ice on the road by my feet. I frowned, zipping up the bag and slinging it over one shoulder as I bent down to examine them. Whoever had made the prints had been alone, it seemed; there were no other prints around besides my own. It appeared that the person had passed through relatively recently—the prints were crisp and clean, unmarred by tire and scuff marks. I glanced up the road, half-expecting to see the person strolling up the hill, but it was just as empty and void of civilization as ever.


“Why would someone walk up this hill, alone?” I whispered aloud, touching one of the prints with my index finger.


And then I saw them, just to the right of the human prints: dog tracks. I shook myself, standing up with a smirk on my face. “Duh,” I said. “They were just taking the dog for a walk.”


I picked up my bike and was about to carry on when I happened to glance across the road and notice that the forest dropped away, affording a mediocre, south-facing vista point. I walked the bike across the street and peered between the treetops. I could see the southernmost end of Fairbanks, trickling out into a vast, snow-blanketed flatlands, across which sat, like a cluster of pebbles in silt, the mountains of Denali National Park. Sure enough, I could just make out Mt. McKinley, towering over the rest of the range. Excitedly, I leaned the bike against a snowbank and pulled out my camera. I grabbed a few photos, and then, for no good reason, dashed back across the street to get a few of the footprints. Reinvigorated by the view, I got back on the bike and pressed on, dreaming about the potential glory of the photos I’d take from my selected highpoint at Henderson Road.


The mediocre view

As I continued my climb, I kept tabs on the footprints I’d seen when I stopped. The dog and boot prints stayed side-by-side for miles, neither seeming to have stopped to inspect their surroundings. I found this strange—I could understand a human not breaking their stride for miles, but, a dog? Dogs get sidetracked by everything; and yet, this dog kept a steady pace—never stopped, never veered off the road. It was eerie. It unsettled me.


By 2:00 PM, the temperature had risen in Fairbanks proper to 34 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d estimate that it’d risen to about 30 degrees where I was. The temperature continued to climb over the next hour, and I stopped a few times to remove my other layers until I was wearing only a tank top.


Around 2:35 PM, I could see the intersection that marked my turnaround point. Right about when I got close enough to read the “Henderson Road” sign, the boot prints I’d been tracking suddenly came to a stop, turned left, took a few sideways steps uphill, then a few south, a few north, and finally, vanished completely.


I stopped the bike in alarm, staring at the overlapping cluster of boot prints that marked the end of their maker’s journey. They did not reappear anywhere nearby, eliminating the possibility that they had leapt over something—they simply stopped in a cluster, and vanished. And then I saw tire tracks, and immediately, I understood: the person had, evidently, gotten into a vehicle. That would explain why I hadn’t seen the person this whole time, I thought, and a wave of relief washed over me.


But the relief was short-lived when I realized that the dog prints veered left across the road just ahead of the cluster of boot prints.


I followed the pawprints with my eyes as they crossed the road and carried on straight towards the intersection with Henderson. At last, the dots began to connect: dog tracks and human tracks, side-by-side; the dog never broke its stride—it had an agenda; the human got into a vehicle, presumably, left the dog behind—the dog did not belong to the human; so, who did the dog belong to? And where was the dog? What was its agenda?


I felt the hairs raise on the back of my neck. Suddenly all the warning signs that I’d so laughingly ignored became red alarms. All thoughts of impressing Mountain Man evaporated and I turned round in a slow, anxious circle, scanning the trees for signs of danger. The forests flanking Ester Dome Road, which had seemed so pleasant and bright not a minute before, appeared to press hard against the roadsides, the spindly, bare branches clawing at the assumed safety of this manmade gash through their domain, and I suddenly had to swallow hard to keep a surge of adrenaline from bursting up my esophagus as reality finally sank in: I was alone, unprotected, exposed, and, generally, unsafe.


I knew I needed to get out of there, but my gaze kept getting pulled back up to the intersection with Henderson road. Two thoughts were fighting my need to flee: “Where did the dog go?” and, “The intersection is only a few feet away—I need to finish this ride, as planned.” They weren’t thoughts that should have won the battle over fleeing to safety, but as I said, there was a kink in the code back then, some bug that kept sabotaging my ability to respond to intuition. So, instead of hopping on the bike and flying down the hill, I clenched my jaw tight, dismounted, and walked the bike uphill to the intersection with my eyes on the road, tracking the pawprints.



I leaned my bike against the snowbank at the intersection at around 2:40 PM. I saw the “NO STATE MAINTENANCE” sign, but my attention was fixed on the dog tracks tearing through the blanket of calf-deep snow on Henderson Road. Camera in hand, I followed the prints, concentrating on stepping inside them to keep from soaking my feet in the snow. It hit me then that the prints were fairly large compared to the average dog print, and as I came around a sharp bend in the road, still ruminating on this thought, I became aware of another set of dog tracks on my left, coming closer to the ones I was following, and then another set on the right. I stopped, tracing the paths of the other tracks with my eyes back to their origins—at the edge of the forest on either side of the road. The dogs had come out of the forest. I looked ahead and saw that more and more sets of tracks joined these until, much farther ahead, all the snow in the road had been disturbed, tramped down, by hundreds of pawprints in a wide circle. At the center of this circle was the probable cause for all of the activity, and a scene that made my blood run cold: an explosion of bright red, interspersed here and there with small chunks of darker red and black.


I gulped down a wave of icy-hot nausea as understanding came like a brick to the face—wolves, not dogs; I was alone, unprotected—and I began to back away, slowly, until I suddenly had an intense feeling that something had spotted me. I froze, scanning the trees, knowing that something was watching me from the darkness of the undergrowth but not seeing anything at all; after a deafening moment of silence, the flight instinct finally took hold and I ran back to my bicycle. I didn’t bother trying to get any pictures of Denali, and I was too panicked to put all my layers back on; I simply threw the camera back into my bag, swung the bag over my shoulders, mounted the bike and began shifting to the lowest possible gear as I hurtled back down the hill.



It wasn’t until I was practically back to the bottom of Ester Dome that I realized I was only wearing a tank top. I stopped at the bottom of the hill, probably sometime shortly after 3:00 PM, intending to don the layers I’d shed on the way up, but when I stopped, the shock of what I’d seen on Henderson Road combined with the numbness of my limbs sent me to my knees on the ice. I sat there, breathing, and suddenly began to feel very sleepy. I was aware, on some distant level, that this was probably not a good thing, but I couldn’t feel my arms or legs or fingers or lips, and I started to lie down, entertaining the nonsensical idea that lying down for a little bit would warm me up. It was probably about 36 degrees at that point (38 in Fairbanks), so it was above freezing, but the frigid air whipping over my sweaty body during the fifteen-minute descent had all but turned me into an ice cube. I was probably borderline hypothermic. I don’t know how I did it, but I forced myself to get up and put my layers back on, after which I began to feel colder than I had in my tank top. Hoping to combat the aching in my limbs as they came back to life, I climbed on my bicycle and carried on back to Fairbanks. Needless to say, I made it all the way back to Teri’s, where I got in the hot shower and didn’t get back out for over an hour.


I didn’t take any photos of the red mess in the snow on Henderson Road. Sometimes I wish I had, but in all honesty, I’m just glad I made it out of there alive. That was the closest I’d come to causing my own death so far, and yet, after the hot shower, I put the whole ordeal behind me—there was still daylight left, and I didn’t want to waste it lamenting about my brush with disaster, so I biked back up to the campus, did some ice climbing on the student-built-and-operated ice climbing wall, and stayed up ’til 3:00 AM trying unsuccessfully to hook up with one of the ice climbers. Naturally, at 6:00 AM on Friday, March 25, 2016, on the plane watching Fairbanks shrink away below, my mind was far from gleaning any valuable lessons relating to my experience almost becoming an ice cube. Nope, all I did for the entire flight home was mope about the fact that the circumstances of the evening hadn’t allowed for a one-night-stand with that ice climber.

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