We could blame Felix Pedro. Or Otto Nielson. Or Jon Underwood.
Surely someone needs to be blamed for the sheer exhaustion my wife, Corrine Leistikow, and I recently endured when we biked the Circle-Fairbanks Historic Trail.
The trail runs about 60 miles between Twelvemile Summit on the Steese Highway and the Fairbanks Creek Road near Cleary Summit. Some portions are great on a bike — especially the 10 miles or so on either end. It has lots of good trail along alpine ridges with expansive scenery. There are some hike-a-bike sections, but mostly those two end portions are fine for mountain biking.
The middle 40 miles are a mixed bag, with some fun biking, but lots and lots of steep, difficult hike-a-bike — both up and down. Corrine and I did the trail in one long push that took 20 hours and 55 minutes. That’s an average speed of less than 3 mph on a bike. Slow, slow, slow. This trail was not built for mountain bikers.
And for that we could blame Felix Pedro and Otto Nielson. Pedro, of course, discovered gold in July 1902 near E.T. Barnette’s trading post, which eventually became Fairbanks. Later that year, miners in the Birch Creek area heard about the strike and came on over. According to a state Department of Natural Resources brochure about the trail (which is no longer in print), Nielson, who was one of the miners, described the marking of the trail in his journal as follows: “On Sept. 2 we pulled into Pedro Creek. We followed the ridge from Eagle Summit to Pedro Dome, blazing a trail through the low saddles. This same trail was used for years afterwards.”
Heck, that same trail is still used more than a century later. Now it’s used mostly by hunters and recreationists (including crazy mountain bikers). The Steese Highway, finished in 1928, replaced the trail as the main transportation route between Circle and Fairbanks.
The modern trail diverges in a few places, but it generally follows the historic route. It’s definitely not built to modern standards. Those miners just wanted to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. They didn’t have much use for things like switchbacks or mild gradients. We pushed our bikes up a lot of the hills. We walked our bikes down some of the steeper, rockier hills. Up. Down. Up. Down. At the trip’s end, our GPS units showed nearly 11,000 feet of elevation gain.
We could blame Jon Underwood for our little adventure. Shortly after I moved to Fairbanks in 1989, I bought a copy of the “Fairbanks Mountain Bike trail guide” which Underwood published around the same time. It’s long out of print, but I kept a copy that I look at occasionally. Over the years I’ve done almost all of the rides on the map. I even helped incorporate the first few miles of the Circle-Fairbanks Historic Trail into the Fairbanks Cycle Club’s Tuesday Night Mountain Bike Ride schedule. But the allure of doing the whole historic trail never left me.
My “mistake” was introducing the idea to Corrine. She is training for a 434-mile bike race in Canada. Earlier this summer, she suggested we do the historic trail and I said yes without even thinking. So, maybe I could blame Corrine. But the trail had been on my bucket list for too long. And, besides, if you think too much you don’t do crazy things.
During our conversations about the trip, we flirted with the idea that a 5 mph pace is slow for a bike ride, so maybe we could do the whole 60-mile trail in 12 hours. But we couldn’t completely dismiss Underwood’s entry about the trail. He and Roman Dial biked it in 19 hours, which included 15 miles of Dial having to hike and coast after his rear derailleur broke. Corrine and I finally decided it would take us between 12 and 24 hours. We held out hope for 12 but packed food for 24.
We picked the weekend of July 20-21. We were both free and the weather looked great: cloudy, cool and no forecasted thunderstorms (something to avoid on long ridge outings). We got up early and were on the trail by 8:30 a.m. The weather was cool (mid-50s) and breezy, but we warmed in a hurry, especially after a long hike-a-bike section about 2 miles in. But, oh, what fantastic alpine scenery!
After about 9 miles, the historic trail diverged from the main trail. Fortunately, we had a GPS track from a friend, Brian Accola, who drove the trail as part of an Arctic Offroad outing a couple of years ago. That track was really useful. There are several intersections with other trails along the route and sometimes the historic trail is not at all obvious. (Maybe we could blame Brian. We might have given up without his track.)
About 15 miles in we dropped down from the ridgeline to cross Pool Creek, where we filled up on water. Then it was another long push to the top of the next ridge before we could ride again. From there it was a mix of riding and hike-a-bike (up and down) with too much of the latter. Fortunately, we had really nice views most of the time.
Several miles and many hours later, we descended into the Sorrels Creek drainage. I knew the historic trail stayed on the ridges, but we dutifully followed Brian’s GPS track. There was no point in getting lost 20 miles from the end.
Brian later told me in an email that his group had searched for the historic trail: “We dropped into Sorrels Creek as we never could find the alleged route over Twin Buttes. It is there but may not connect and is evidently rough.”
Even Jon Underwood called that section of the historic trail “virtually unridable” in his guide. Corrine and I don’t regret missing that section. At that point we were too sleep-deprived and exhausted to be purists. And we could bike much of the route we followed.
It was in this section that Corrine succinctly evaluated our trip: “I’m glad we’re doing this. I’ll be really glad when we’re done. And we never have to do this again!”
Eventually, we hooked up to the ridgeline again. After a few more miles, we went around Coffee Dome and descended to a saddle where a mining road between Fairbanks and Kokomo creeks bisects the trail.
“Yes!” I exclaimed, when I recognized the intersection where the Tuesday Night Ride meets the trail. Being on a familiar trail was comforting. I knew there was one more long hike-a-bike and one really rocky descent, but the rest was easily bikeable. Less than two hours later we pulled into the clearing that serves as a parking lot. Done! At just shy of 21 hours, we were far from the hoped-for 12 hours, but less than our worst-case scenario of 24 hours.
That’s when we could fully embrace the “blame” for such a ridiculous endeavor. It was all ours and we were proud of it!
For a map of the Circle-Fairbanks Historic Trail, see tinyurl.com/y5asq9fs.
For those interested in the history of the trail, see Ray Bonnell’s 2015 column for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner at tinyurl.com/k8o5dmq.
Eric Troyer is a freelance writer and volunteer living in Fairbanks. He publishes the Interior Trails Newsletter, a free monthly newsletter about trails in interior Alaska. To get on his distribution list email him at email@example.com.