The slow road to enlightenment

Ed Devlin, Elliot Professor of Biology

Ed Devlin

I have always enjoyed the outdoors, feeling a special sense of connection to the land, the wildlife and solitude it provides.

It’s more difficult for me to hike these days because of past knee and back surgeries, but I can still ride a bike and still have a sense of adventure. I am also an experimental biologist who likes to explore the physical limits of an athlete in his sixth decade of life. So it was that I set out to see if I could ride my bicycle from our home on the Hampden-Sydney campus to the Arctic Circle in Northern Alaska during the summer of 2013. This was not a race, rather a bike tour, albeit one on steroids (figuratively), as it were. Thanks to proper training, planning, and a bit of luck, I was able to complete the trip in much faster time than I anticipated. Riding seven days a week for seven to eight hours a day, I finished the trip of 5,883 miles in 76 days. Yikes.

I did the trip, but I still cannot get over the fact that one can cover that kind of mileage on a bicycle. I used a steel-framed touring bicycle and carried all my supplies including clothing, medications, and camping gear, as I camped out most nights. When loaded, the bike and gear weighed about 70 pounds, which is on the lighter side as touring bike rigs go.

There are a number of things that are special about bicycle touring that one does not find when traveling by car. One of them is the slow pace of the change in the geological formations and major ecosystems present in the different regions of the continent one travels through. It was very interesting to see the gradual change of the ecosystems at the beginning of the trip from the eastern hardwood forests to the central grasslands, to the northern prairies, to the alpine regions of the Canadian Rockies, to the northern boreal forests and eventually the arctic tundra at the end. Most of my route was very rural and remote. Along one leg of the trip I rode north along the Missouri River for about 1,000 miles following the historic route taken by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Both on the bike and while camping I had the opportunity to observe lots of wildlife, such as the more familiar hawks, ospreys, turkeys, fox, deer, and several different species of tree squirrels. I also saw many of the less familiar, including prairie dogs, ground squirrels, several different snake species, bald eagles (big birds up close), different waterfowl species along the central flyways, pheasant, caribou, elk, black and grizzly bears, pine martens, snowshoe hares, lynx, wolf, moose, and more that I am probably forgetting.

This trip was also a chance to experience a cross-section of rural America that I, and many people, do not have access to. Bicycle travel is a much more intimate way to travel and to interact with people. I found it was normally quite the conversation starter to ride up to a convenience store in a small town in Nebraska on a loaded touring bicycle. I met many interesting people and had the opportunity to experience firsthand the kindness and generosity of the people of our country and of those in Canada. That being said, I did run into the occasional misunderstanding between drivers and a touring bicyclist. A very active discussion between me and a semi-driver on a remote section of mountain road in British Columbia comes to mind. But by and large I found drivers to be courteous. The last 200 miles or so north of Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle were the most challenging of the trip along the mostly unpaved Dalton Highway. But once I made it to the Arctic Circle the trip ended pretty quickly. I caught a ride back to Fairbanks, boxed up my bike for shipment, and was on an airplane back home. I returned to campus with a bit more experience and insight available to share with our students.

I wrote up a daily blog of the trip with lots of photos (see I guess I can tick one more item off my “bucket list.”