From the Desk of Jessica Cherry: Polar Exploration Is for Everyone

Jessica Cherry is a geoscientist, writer, aerial photographer, and commercial airplane pilot living in Anchorage, Alaska. She wrote a literary column for the alternative weekly Anchorage Press from 2019-2022. She is coeditor of Wheels on Ice: Stories of Cycling in Alaska (Nebraska, 2022).

This project started out as a reprint of some more than century-old material and ended in a very modern place, including a rap video by an amazing transgender artist named MoHagani Magnetek. I’ve got this eccentric friend, Rob, who loves old things: old bikes, old furniture, old books. And he told me about this collection of gold rush era cycling tales from Alaska and the Yukon that had been collated by Alaska Historian Terrence Cole in the late 1980s. Terrence and his twin brother Dermot have been fixtures in the community of Fairbanks for many decades now. Dermot wrote for the local newspaper and Terrence was a history professor at the University of Alaska. I took a faculty position there in climate science back in 2006 and used my tuition benefit to take a couple writing classes with former Alaska State Writer Laureate Frank Soos, as well as Terrence’s Literature of Polar Exploration class. 

Terrence used to show up to class on his bike, a few minutes late of course, hair disheveled, papers coming out of his panniers. And it didn’t matter if it was -30F or whatever, that’s just what people do in Fairbanks. His class was a total mess, like someone had dumped a shelf of books into a blender and asked students to glance into the whirling pulp on a PowerPoint slide. But no one cared and everyone came away with new ideas and new things to read. I taught one of the classes, in fact, about the books that inspired me on my own pathway toward becoming a polar oceanographer, a commercial airplane pilot, and then a two-time finalist for the astronaut program. The students loved it and Terrence gave me a big hug after class and told me I had to write my own story someday. I’m still living it, I told him!   

Frank and I both had this idea of reprinting the gold rush bike book. Frank was an avid rider and I had been until I started spending all of my free time on airplanes. We would supplement those with contemporary and diverse stories to make a full-sized book, whereas the original had been essentially a pamphlet put out by a local history magazine. We hadn’t been in much of a hurry and then we learned that Terrence had terminal cancer. In the meantime, I left the University and moved down to Anchorage.

Frank got Terrence’s box of bike stories from him and we started going through it. Since the early 1980s, he’d saved clippings from the local paper every time there was a story about cycling. Some of them were written by his brother, some weren’t even about Alaska. He had a map of New York City’s bike friendly routes, which I knew well, having lived there for a decade. Frank and I would talk on the phone and figure out which of these might fit in the book, which to toss, and then he would offer up names of the people in Fairbanks who had been involved in the early fatbiking scene, for other stories. Some, like Rocky Reifenstuhl, weren’t alive anymore, or had moved away, but Frank seemed to know how to get ahold of someone who had the material.  For me, I have the technical skills, so I scanned and digitized everything and then tracked down some pieces from the contemporary blogosphere. Finally, we put out a call for new stories.

One of those new stories was from Jeff Oatley, who is well-known for some of the more extreme long-distance accomplishments in recent years. In fact, just after I’d moved to Anchorage in early 2017, I was back in Fairbanks doing an airborne mapping mission in my Cessna, then headed back to Anchorage on a jet. There at the airport, I ran into Jeff, who is a friend. He was nervously checking in his bike and a tiny bag of things. ‘Whatcha up to, Jeff?’ I’d asked. ‘More stupid stuff,’ he’d replied.

Rejoined on the other side of security, we’d sat together in the terminal waiting area. He admitted, then, in his slight southern drawl, that his plan was to start in Skagway and make his way up the Klondike Route, through White Pass into the Yukon and then up and over into Alaska and down the Yukon River to Nome. Completely insane, but Alaskans, and Fairbanksans in particular, seem to lean this way. I asked if he’d ever written about his adventures. ‘Nope.’ End of conversation. We boarded the plane and as luck would have it, our two seats were next to each other. At times, Jeff is a man full of silence and we were both looking out the window at the frozen, late-winter landscape. The day before, I transited through this same area in my Cessna, wrapped in a snow suit and survival gear, but my route took me back through the Eastern Interior and it was easier to keep the small plane there in Fairbanks. ‘Jeff, what would it take for you to write your story,’ I dug my heels in. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied.

Two years later, now working on the book, I’d paired him with Frank, a fellow southerner, but he didn’t need much help, it turned out. His story of that particular trip is essentially how it came to us. Other stories trickled in; it was the Covid-19 lockdown now, and Terrence succumbed to his cancer. Over the phone, Frank and I would talk about the submissions, figure out how to polish some and solicit others. In fact, I would never see Frank again in person. After the book was accepted by UNP and I got my Covid-19 vaccinations, my first obligation was to return there to Lincoln, where I’d grown up, to help my elderly parents pack up and move to Seattle, where my brother lives. I was in Seattle helping them unpack when I heard from Frank’s wife that he’d died in a cycling accident.

Well, that’s a few hundred words about the making of the book, but another point is that while some of the stories in the book are about extreme adventures, others are not. In fact, just riding your bike to work in America is an adventure, as much as it is an act of rebellion against our car culture. It is enough. Exploration, Polar or otherwise, is a frame of mind. Eric Flanders has a story in our collection about riding a trainer in his basement. I think it’s still transporting, and I hope the readers agree. Growing up in Nebraska, I used my bike for transportation and exploration and I suppose that’s how it all started. I was back in town a few months ago and on an old Trek I picked up at the Bike Kitchen, I rode the trail down to Beatrice, past my family farms and the communities where my family settled five generations ago. We’ve all got an exploration story; we don’t all need to move to Alaska. I told a pilot friend who bemoaned returning to Lincoln from the Great White North: Alaska is a frame of mind. Two stories in the collection speak to this—one about a trip to the Chris McCandless bus and the book’s closing piece about…well, I’ll let you all explore it on your own.

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