Setting out on April 24 from his front door in Reno, Bradley ended his journey three months later on July 16 after traveling 4,700 miles to the Bering Sea. The first leg was 2,847 miles by bicycle, the second was 33 miles of hiking and the last leg was 1,892 miles by canoe. An accomplished adventurer, athlete, speaker, guide and blogger, 40-year-old Bradley is best known for his 2009 speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail. Paddling-wise, he’s descended over 13,000 miles on rivers throughout the North American continent. He’s currently working on a documentary of the trip called BLC to the Bering Sea.
PL: What was the hardest portion (i.e. hike, bike or paddle)?
Bradley: The biking was pretty gravy. The hike beat me up a little as it was a high snow year in Alaska last winter. Humping a heavy pack up and over Chilkoot Pass on snowshoes wore me out. Nothing a little vitamin I couldn’t fix though. The last day paddling back upstream from the Bering Sea to Emmonak was a work out. I spent 12 hours to go 11 miles. Normally I’d cover anywhere from 70 miles per day on the upper and maybe 45-50 miles on the lower river. However my effort was minimal compared to what the Yupik people of Emmonak would do back in the day pre-motor boat. They made the same trip round trip in skin boats to hunt seal. Upper Lakes (Lake Bennett, Nares Lake, Tagish, and Marsh Lake) also held me back a little as it was windy at times.
PL: Where’d you paddle from/to exactly, and what kind of canoe?
Bradley: I paddled from Bennett on Lake Bennett to the Bering
Sea. Basically from source to sea on the Yukon. I actually dipped my paddle in the Bering Sea, something very few paddlers do. Then I went back upstream to Emmonak to fly out. I paddled a PakCanoe 165 and loved it. It can be cost prohibitive to fly a canoe out of Emmonak, but since I had a folding canoe I was able to get out of there for $90. I thought at first that maybe the boat was slow and sluggish, but looking back and having now run some whitewater in it (Class IV on the Talachulitna) I realize it is just as fast as a hard boat. And there were some other bonuses to using it. I liked that it is so stable. You’re more likely to be thrown from the boat than the boat capsizing.
It also has a foam floor that helps keep your feet warm. I was quite often paddling bare foot. The Yukon and Upper Lakes are known for their cold water and many folks line their boats with foam to offset this discomfort. No problem in the PakCanoe. I hope to use it many more times on other watersheds in the Arctic as it saves money on the fly ins/outs. Also, when assembled you wonder if it will prove to be durable or a may-pop as I used to call them (I was a river guide for over 15 years from the Chugach to the Chihuahuan Desert and born and raised in Anchorage). Not so with the PakCanoe. It proved quite durable.
PL: What was your most harrowing paddling moment?
Bradley: Early on in the trip I had a harrowing crossing of Marsh
Lake near its inlet. I didn’t have much of a choice as I camped where I could on the eastern shore. In the morning when I left camp there was light wind and chop. I quickly learned how deceiving that can be from shore. The canoe was my saving grace though as it is so stable. I treated the rest of the lakes with the utmost respect and this proved to be a valuable lesson as Lake Laberge was definitely the roughest of the lakes I traversed.
On the lower river near the town of Holy Cross I had a sketchy 30 minute adventure too. Surprisingly enough the winds on the lower river can create 8-foot rollers in a matter of seconds. I didn’t believe it until I experienced it first hand. I had been sailing downstream all day in the sun in surf trunks and a short sleeve shirt and barefoot. Then I came to the sharp bend in the river above the town of Holy Cross. Literally in minutes as the two fronts converged the river was whipped into 8-foot rollers and really weird eddy fences and boils. I found myself in this kind of harmonic wave train and I really couldn’t point the boat to square up to what was going on. I chose to get the hell out of there and headed to shore into Holy Cross. Thirty minutes later the river had calmed like nothing had happened.
Another thing to be aware of is flooding on the Yukon. With it being a high snow year the Teslin River was in flood stage when I joined it. This was good as I started covering more ground — about 70-80 miles a day — but bad as many of the camps and islands where under water. The AlCan Highway also washed out behind me due to the flooding so the groceries in Whitehorse where very limited when I went through town. It also caused dangers with snags washing downriver. One minute you’d look downstream and it was all clear, then suddenly a snag would catch a sand bar and you would have an obstruction. I really needed to give my full attention to this river at all times as things happened quick and changed quickly.
PL: What prompted you to make the trip?
Bradley: I had gotten into bike touring as a result of purchasing a touring bike for commuting to work. I quickly realized bike touring could be a way for me to go human powered to remote locations. As a child I’d watched a National Geographic show called Yukon Passage. I was captivated by this and it no doubt had a hand in me becoming a river guide. Once I started researching the trip I just had to hike the Chilkoot Trail like the stampeders did. It ended up being a very rewarding way to paddle the fifth longest river in the world from source to sea.
PL: Knowing how hard it is to finance at rip like this, any sponsors you’d like to plug?
Bradley: My sponsors are a major part of my success on this route. Hammer Nutrition has been a sponsor of mine for several years. Their products have served me well on fastpacking and ultrarunning endeavors, and also work well on the bike and canoe. In particular the Perpetuem worked great as a carbohydrate drink which kept me moving in the canoe during the day. I also had plenty of Hammer Bars in my PFD to munch on the go.
WindPaddle Sails are a must have for a river like the Yukon and the upper lakes. WindPaddle provided me with a Cruiser sail and it basically was like having a small outboard on the canoe. It made crossing lakes in nasty conditions safer as I had momentum. Sockeye Cycles in Skagway broke my bike down, boxed it and shipped it home for me. That helped with timing and logistics in Skagway. Up North Adventures in Whitehorse provided me with a shuttle around the dam in Whitehorse. They also provided invaluable river experience, resources and info on town for me while I floated through. They will definitely be my go to outfitter when I return next.
I used my trusty PETZL headlamps on the bike leg when it was still dark. I have been using their lamps for years and my e+ LITE kept my load light on the bike. I used my Western Mountaineering Megalite on the bike leg. Western Mountaineering makes the finest sleeping bags in the world. Last, but not least, LEKI has provided me with trekking poles for years. I couldn’t have gotten over Chilkoot Pass on snowshoes without them.