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To the river, to the sea: Adam Bradley's quest
Story by Joe Bousquin and
Photography by Tom Zikas
Adam Bradley trekked nearly 5,000 miles from Reno to Alaska and the Bering Sea — through bears, bugs and bad weather. Why? The thrill of discovery — and to see firsthand a fast-changing Earth
It all boiled down to the bugs.
With just 800 miles to go on his 4,738-mile, biking-walking-and-paddling quest from Reno to the Bering Sea, the bugs were starting to get the best of Adam Bradley.
He’d pedaled away from the grizzlies scavenging for dandelions and green shoots on the side of British Columbia’s Stewart Cassiar Highway. He’d floated most of the massive Yukon River, starting at its Bennett Lake headwaters, crossing into the Arctic Circle and dodging huge, upturned trees and their spiraling root balls in his foldable, plastic-skinned canoe. He’d even gotten himself past the mercurial customs agents at the Canadian-Alaska border at Frasier with his 12-gauge shotgun — a vital piece of survival gear — after a Kafkaesque dance around seemingly changeable regulations in which he was very nearly accused of being an arms smuggler. But the bugs were something else.
You remember Bradley. He’s the notable Nevadan and ultra-light, ultra-fast speed hiker (trail handle: “Krudmeister”) who walked the length of Nevada’s controversial renewable energy corridor from Las Vegas to Reno in 2010, after setting the shared speed record (with buddy Scott Williamson) on the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2009.
His most recent jaunt, completed last summer, was a purely human-powered roll, ramble and paddle from his front door in Reno to Alaska’s Bering Sea, a quest he dubbed BLC (for Biggest Little City) to Bering Sea.
On his way there, he rolled past antelope in the Sheldon National Wildlife Reserve in northwest Nevada, biked in and out of Oregon and merged onto the Adventure Cycling Association’s Transamerica Trail in Idaho and Montana. He climbed through the jaw-dropping landscape of British Columbia’s Icefields Parkway in Banff and Jasper National Parks — seeing up to 25 mature grizzlies along the way — to reach the Yukon Territory. Once there, he ditched his bike for hiking boots to go up and over the notorious Chilkoot Pass before finally unfolding his canoe on the shores of Lake Bennett to join the Yukon.
But here, as he faced this Battle of the Bugs more than 1,000 miles downstream, none of those previous accomplishments seemed to matter much.
No, the only thing significant in Adam Bradley’s life at that moment was the fact that he could not breathe without inhaling a lungful of protein. He was fighting for air amid swarms of mosquitoes, no-see-ums and horseflies, each jockeying for a taste of his blood. He could not bare a single inch of his wind-chapped and sun-beaten skin to the elements — despite 90-degree days — without some maddeningly small, winged and buzzing demon laying claim to it.
“Every time I took a breath, they’d home in on the carbon dioxide that I was putting back out,” Bradley recalls. “Even with bug dope, if not for my head net, I literally couldn’t breathe without inhaling thousands of bugs.”
‘What else could go wrong?’
The maddening scenario was very nearly pushing him to his breaking point. After weeks in his canoe, paddling under the midnight sun to avoid the 30 mph daytime zephyrs that threatened to dump his 600-pound payload into the swollen torrent, he was short on sleep.
Despite being in the middle of one of the largest wilderness areas in the world, he’d been having trouble finding a good place to camp. After a winter of above-average snowfall and higher-than-average spring and summer temperatures — a convergence Bradley attributes to the effects of climate change in one of the most ecologically sensitive spots on earth — the Yukon’s massive riverbed was shuttling well over a quarter million cubic feet of icy, glacier-fed water toward the sea each second. That meant the mid-channel gravel bars — usually mud- and bug-free island refuges for river paddlers — were completely gone, even though they still appeared on the pre-plotted maps of his GPS, his canoe floating over them like a bloated ghost ship.
His only options for camping were on the river’s muddy, buggy banks. After resigning himself to that fact, he dragged his canoe through a mud bog and set up his tent amid the swarm, finally collapsing into a deep, murky sleep.
It would last for just ten minutes. When he woke, he was in a puddle of his own sweat, the high, midday sun that relentlessly pierces through the thinner ozone layer near the poles quickly turning his tent into a 100-plus degree sauna.
He bolted from the tent in nothing but his underwear, instantly presenting a feast of flesh to thousands of flying, hungry mouths. He jolted toward his canoe in hopes of finding a space blanket that would keep the sun off his tent; instead, in his desperation, he pulled on his boat, which sucked against the mud and popped one of its critical aluminum braces in a spot that was decidedly inaccessible for easy repair.
All that was left to do was scream — which is what he did, loud and boisterously, turning to the sky and asking anyone who could hear: “What else could go wrong?” Having traveled nearly 4,000 miles under his own power, his goal in sight, here he was, knee-deep in mud on the banks of the Yukon so far from his Reno home, driven mad by bugs, standing alone in his underwear and screaming at God.
“All I could do at that point was go back to the river. So I waded out into the water and crouched down to my neck so only my head was exposed. I stayed in as long as I possibly could, until I was shivering, and then got a little sleep before paddling away.”
The temptation of home
Not far downstream, he intersected a small outpost where the Alaskan Pipeline crosses the Yukon, a last-ditch way station offering truckers and roughnecks a place to resupply — and suddenly, a tantalizingly easy exit point for Bradley from the turmoil of his trip.
“I started thinking in my mind that if I wanted to quit, I could, right there,” Bradley says.
Quit, and go home. After all, this quest was always really just about coming home anyway. A native Alaskan who was born and raised in Anchorage, Bradley had embarked on his journey to return to his place of origin, and experience the land of his youth before the ever-widening extremes of hotter summers and wetter winters changed it forever. “My thinking was that I had better do this now, and not wait until I retire,” says Bradley, who works at outdoor retailer Patagonia in Reno. “I’m glad I did.”
An ardent conservationist whose 2010 hike through Nevada’s Southwest Intertie Project (SWIP) corridor helped raise awareness for the Nevada Wilderness Project, Bradley is vigilant about the impacts his own adventures have on the environment. “The human-powered aspect of this was important,” Bradley says. “I need to lead a self-examined life to do the most I can, and leave as small a footprint as possible while I’m here.”
It’s an element of Bradley’s expeditions that’s close to his heart: to see and perhaps even help protect the wildest places before they’re gone. He says the allure of speed-hiking has faded for him (“I want to take the time to really see the places I go now”) even as another race has begun: to explore the planet’s wildest places before they become unrecognizable.
“One of the things I’m seeking, and one of the reasons I wanted to do this in a completely human-powered way, was to connect as much as possible to those environments that are becoming impacted at a rapid pace,” Bradley says. “It’s obvious that Alaska, especially as you get closer to the pole, is one of those places.”
One of the most startling signs of that change, he says, were the collapsing banks of the Yukon itself. Usually held stiff by permafrost, the banks have gotten softer in recent years to the point where huge slabs of dirt and sediment can calve off in seconds, leaving overhanging terraces of mud and vegetation at the river’s edge. Mixed with last summer’s unusually swift current, that meant a constant deluge of soil and earth collapsing into the foam.
“When I first got on the river, I started hearing these loud booms, especially at night. I couldn’t figure it out at first — it sounded like gunfire — but it was the banks falling in on themselves,” Bradley says. “It took me a while to get used to it.”
Change is coming
Traveling through the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve east of Fairbanks, Bradley encountered Park Service scientists who were sampling water in lakes adjacent to the river. Usually clear and free from the glacial sediment in the river itself, the scientists observed the pH balance of those lakes changing, too, evidence that the softened soil was actually wicking river water underground.
“Climate change scientists are flocking to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Yukon-Charley to see how the plants and animals are dealing with how quickly this change is coming on,” says Bradley. His goal on future trips is to assist such efforts by collecting samples and data from even more pristine and remote wilderness tracts before they change, too.
Which is why, standing at that lonely way station where the pipeline crosses the river, as the thought of quitting his trip gained an ever stronger foothold in his mind, he knew he had to get back in his canoe.
“After that point, there was no easy way back out. As soon as I had that thought of quitting, I knew I just had to get back in the canoe and get out of there. As soon as I was around the corner, I was down in there, and no longer had a choice. I just dealt with it by taking that choice away.”
Just over two weeks later, on July 16, after paddling out to the salty waters of the Bering Sea, he paddled back upstream 10 miles to the Yupik Eskimo village of Emmonak, the terminus of his quest, his journey complete. On the beach there, he was greeted by village elders and their curious children, eager to help him with the load he had carried alone for so long. He shared licorice with the kids; their parents shared salmon jerky with him.
They discussed the changing landscape he’d just experienced firsthand; they told him of the ice breaking up more quickly in the spring, polar bears who venture further and further south, sometimes a lack of game.
“These people have been living in these areas for nearly 15,000 years, and they still choose to maintain a subsistence lifestyle today — they live the original green lifestyle,” Bradley says. “But they’re worried, in 10 or 15 years, whether their kids will be able to keep doing it. You don’t have to convince them of climate change, they see it firsthand.”
And yet, for all the evidence of change he saw, he also reconnected with the Alaska of his childhood, something that gave him a stronger sense of home when he returned to work and life in Nevada. He says he now knows that his little house in the World’s Biggest Little City is connected, inch by inch, to the wilds of the North, to wild places that are only as far away as he chooses to push himself.
“Knowing that all of the terrain that I saw connects right back to my front door,” Bradley says, “It really makes it feel more like home.” Fortunately, the bugs didn’t find their way back with him.
For more on Adam Bradley’s BLC to Bering Sea quest, visit krudmeister.blogspot.com
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