Biker traverses 250 miles of snow and ice

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2003

JUNEAU Mike Miller's winter vacation this year was not spent at an enormous outdoor enthusiast gear swap. But his packing list might have led one to believe otherwise. Life preserver. Ice ax. Spare bike tire tube. Plastic sled. Telemark skis. Insulated Xtra Tuffs.

Miller, 40, set out on an expedition that took him by bike from the southwest end of Tutshi Lake, about 20 miles past the U.S.-Canada border on the Klondike Highway, across a series of frozen lakes that formed a quasi-highway to Atlin, British Columbia. From there he crossed the Juneau Icefield, mostly on his bicycle, to return to Juneau.

''I mainly did it to prove that it's doable,'' Miller said. ''The efficiency of (bike) transportation it's just a thrill to be able to move so far over that vast environment.''

Miller realized the winter travel potential for his bike when he used it to pull his children, Dillon, 11, and Karla, 9, and their friends on a sled around the neighborhood.

''It was really pretty easy, and I got to thinking that you can really cruise on a bike, even with a 150-pound load,'' Miller said.

A four-day solo bike trip via road from Skagway to Haines in January took him by Tutshi Lake, and the idea of setting off on that lake with Juneau as a final destination was born.

When he crossed the 20-mile-long Tutshi Lake on April 21, the first day of his journey, Miller carried a life preserver and an ice ax on his backpack as he rode, in case he miscalculated the ice's strength and fell through. His backpack was stuffed with a down sleeping bag and a satellite phone in a water tight bag as well. But his fears of getting wet soon dissipated.

''After a short period of time you realize you're not going to break through,'' he said.

At the eastern end of Tutshi Lake, Miller carried his bike, sled and gear eight miles east to Tagish Lake, where he camped for the night. The next day he biked nearly 25 miles south on Tagish Lake, then headed east through what's called the Golden Gate passage into a branch of the lake called Graham Inlet. There, he stayed with Jim and Martha Brooks, who operate cabins for adventurists at the mouth of Rupert Creek, which feeds into the inlet.

The next day, Miller biked 17 miles east across the Graham Inlet, portaged 3 miles along the Atlin River to access Atlin Lake, and crossed the lake to the town of Atlin, about 90 air miles northeast of downtown Juneau. He had contacted several Atlin residents before the trip to check on ice conditions, and heard mixed reports.

''Some people were like, 'Don't do it. You're going to drown. The ice isn't strong enough.' Then others said, 'The ice is fine but the icefield will be terrible,''' Miller said.

In the end, he went with the advice of Gernot Dick, a longtime resident of Atlin who operates a guiding company. Dick said the trip was feasible.

''It didn't make sense to me at first because I didn't know him,'' Dick said from Atlin. But when Miller showed up at Dick's lodge, nearly one-third of the way through his journey, Dick understood the need for adventure that motivated Miller.

''He's an exceptional, exciting, strong individual,'' Dick said. ''He's a marvelous exception. And it's beautiful when you are with him. He's a very gentle man.''

Dick skied next to Miller for the first six miles of the next day's trip across Atlin Lake, turning back at the northern entrance to the Torres Channel, a strait that runs along the western edge of Atlin Lake. Miller biked south along the channel to Willison Bay. At the end of the bay, Miller met his friend Brian Delay, who had flown to the eastern end of the icefield to join him on skis for five days as he crossed the Juneau Icefield.

The pair skied up Hoboe Creek Miller dismantled his bike and attached it to his sled and reached the Juneau Icefield on the fifth day of Miller's biking journey. On the icefield, Miller and Delay found the snow to be extremely slushy during the day but frozen and bikeable by night. So they shifted to a night schedule, covering the most distance between midnight and 8:30 a.m.

''I have to say the snow was horrible,'' said Delay, who was traveling on cross-country skis with no metal edges. ''But the nights were beautiful. The northern lights were blazing pretty much every night.''

Each morning, Miller threw his bike on the sled and skied with Delay until about noon.

Delay had arranged for a helicopter to bring him back to Juneau at Echo Pass, on the Southwest Branch of the Taku Glacier. Miller continued up the Lemon Glacier, ditched his sled and some of his gear at the top of the Ptarmigan Glacier, and returned to Juneau via the Lemon Creek Trail. He traveled a total of 44 hours in the final two days of his trip.

''I like that push,'' he said. ''I'm into that endurance push, to go as long as possible.''

After 71/2 days, Miller had crossed more than 250 miles of snow and ice on his bike.

''You feel pretty exposed out there ... but just to be able to ride on that skin of ice, it was fun,'' he said. ''It was really, really, really fun.''

Christine Schmid is a reporter for the Juneau Empire.

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