Heidi Domeisen's 317 day bicycle touring adventure to Alaska and back

Heidi Domeisen's bicycle touring adventure from her home in North Carolina to Alaska and back is an extremely well written story that will likely rank as one of the epic tales of bicycle touring available on the internet.

During her tour she experienced acts of kindness, illness, several days snowed in and encountered awe-inspiring scenery.along the way. She grunted her way uphill, enjoyed the sheer adrenaline of a fast descent down a mountain and encountered moments of discovery upon finding that her brakes were frozen open while descending at high speed.

She swam in the Artic Ocean and overall seem to enjoy a great adventure. It's my great pleasure to add an interview with her to Bicycle Touring 101.

 

Heidi's collection of maps before the tour started.

Heidi's collection of maps before the tour started.
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When you first dreamed of a bicycle touring adventure to Alaska from your home did you see yourself being on the road for 317 days or were you surprised at the length and duration of your tour?

I knew my start and end dates as I planned the trip. As far as I was concerned the trip could have lasted as long as I wanted so 317 days wasn’t a big deal, neither was it a surprise. My surprise was that I did not return exactly on the date I had planned which was five days earlier. Normally I can make my anchor dates exactly as planned. I could have pushed through rainy weather near the end and not wandered around town visiting friends making my original ETA on the nose, but I cut myself some slack and didn’t bother pushing and enjoyed the ending. What’s the point to rush when the trip is over anyway?

When looking back over the 317 days of your tour what special moments come to your mind?

Heidi's entrance to Washington state.

Heidi's entrance to Washington state.
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It is extremely rare for me on any trip to single out one event as being “special”. Every moment was “special” to be in. Sometimes special was a negative experience, sometimes it was positive; sometimes it was a mediocre moment or a chain of events. Special to me is a moment when I feel a divine connection, an “ah ha”, or a “holy cow!” They occurred daily. At the very moment of its occurrence I would think, “This is the best”. But then another special-ness would spin out of the sky and drop into my lap and my response would repeat itself. Wouldn’t you be able to find dozens of special moments looking back over the course of last year?

Now that the trip is over and I can see it from a greater perspective the enormity of it seems pretty special. I can’t believe I went that far and at the same time I feel, of course I did, one stroke at a time, it was easy.

Another overall special-ness that has struck a sweet chord in my heart is the timing of it all: the crossing of both the great divides on the equinoxes, being at the farthest northern point on the solstice, arriving at Janet’s house on my mother’s birthday and at the Atlantic on my Grandmother’s birthday. In a way all was in order with the Universe. My path was being followed exactly according to the script that had been written for me eons ago, I had the sun and the stars blessing me and my matriarchal ancestors protecting me. How special can that be?

A beautiful red river sunrise.

A beautiful red river sunrise.
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What moments would you most like to forget happened?

If you want a succinct answer I will say that the trip had to end.

Memory fades all too quickly of its own accord; I don’t wish to accelerate the process. The good, bad and ugly all had their place in my life. I would not be who I am today if I did not experience it all. Sometimes the negative experiences which one might want to forget give one the greatest learning experience which I do want to remember.

Plus, I don’t want to forget any of those especially yucky scenes, for if I’m ever in a one-up-man-ship contest I may very well be able to get in the last word.

A lot of discussion in your journal revolves around problems experienced while riding your recumbent trike. For your next tour would you use the same bike, same kind of bike by a different manufacturer or strike out with an entirely different kind of bike.

Yeah, I’d use the same bike again only because I own it and it’s paid for. Me and it have a bundle of shared memories. I can’t just boot it out of the barn because it’s not as good as the Jones’ bike.

But if I was to turn back time and buy my bike all over again I’d buy a Greenspeed from Mt. Airy Bikes in Maryland. The reason is this: it’s not only a bike you are buying, but it is the whole line of support that you will need on an extended trip of this nature. The Trimuter frame held up, no welds broken; components held up beyond expectation considering the abuse and weather extremes demanded of them; it was a durable touring bike that passed muster. When touring there is more than just good brakes, welds and shifters, behind the bike there needs to be someone you can call up for help, for insight, for never-heard-of-before solutions, and to listen. Sadly, I felt that was lacking for me. That is the reason why I would choose another bike shop and another manufacturer.

One of several flat tires experienced during the tour.

One of the MILLION flat tires experienced during the tour.
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For fear of libel I omitted much of the gory details of the happenings involving my bike purchase and discovery of its inadequacies. I don’t know what I can say without overstepping that possibly litigious line so I stayed well away from it.

By Arkansas, less than one month into the trip, the bike shop man had TOTALLY washed his hands clean from me and had ABSOLUTELY no contact with me even when I attempted to communicate. This forced me to interface directly with the manufacturer whose business was not set up to interact with the end-user. It put him in a bind since he did not know what the bike shop man had done to the bike to make it behave in such intolerable ways. He could not uphold the warranty because he did not assemble it or sell it.

He was friendly, pleasant and polite to me, but I felt he did not take me seriously or listen to my complaints in earnest. God only knows what shook him up enough to realize what a disaster the first bike had been and offer to send me a new one. It took six months, three thousand miles, $1,200 of repairs and a bunch of genius engineers to get him to see the light. Or maybe it was the >100,000 hits to my journal, showering the world with my complaints.

I do give the manufacturer credit for sending me the specialized parts that I needed along the road as long as I found a street address to ship to and had a valid credit card number. I just wished he listened.

Next time I buy a bike, I’ll choose a manufacturer and dealer that listens and cares even if it’s a more expensive bike or not as well spec’ed out. Support is the key for me.

Heidi created these brake booties to help prevent them from freezing open in cold weather.

Heidi created these brake booties to to prevent water from entering the cables and freezing during cold weather.
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What modifications did you make to your existing bike to make it work and what additional modifications would be needed before you would consider using it again?

Long answer to this question…

The modifications…… Wow, a ton of them, gosh where do I start?

I’ll work from the front to the back.

I used a fairing, a bubble fairing made by Windwrap. Mark and Carl Mueller were fabulously supportive people. Helpful about fairings, bikes, and tremendous listeners and solution finders.

Keeping water from entering the front shifter with a flexible, adhesive, waterproof dressing used in hospitals.

Raincoats custom built to fit around the disc brake calipers and cables to keep the water out.

Additional loops, wire, electrical tape and zip-ties used to support the brake cables that would have normally been swinging in the breeze and catching on every obstruction 3” or taller.

Foam insulation taped around low spots on the cables to help them from freezing. This did not work, they froze anyway.

Rerouting the cables to reduce 360 degree bends and eliminating sharp right angles. Re-shaping the holes in the frame from a circle to an oval and chamfering the edges. This allowed the cable to make a less abrupt turn in and out of the frame. Shortening cables, lengthening cables, then shortening them again trying to find the best routing.

Sow and cub on the Cassiar Highway in Canada.

Sow and cub on the Cassiar Highway in Canada. The sow bluff charged Heidi then eventually re-entered the woods.
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Gear bags were custom sewn to fit my bike. A friend gave me the use of his industrial sewing machine and all the materials needed to build anything I wanted. I added outside pockets to my Ortlieb panniers; an under the seat gear bag; specially designed compression stuff sacks to fit my specific sized and shaped gear, integrated a slow moving vehicle triangle into the back of one sack; a tripod bag hanging down from the boom; clips and holders under the seat for additional carrying capacity; Lined Gore-tex overmitts to keep my hands warm & dry and keep water from seeping into the brake and shifter cables; re-shaped the seat to eliminate folds and increase support and Velcroed a seat cushion that was also hand-shaped for me; made permanently mounted straps with Fastex buckles to hold down gear and store tent poles under rear rack.

For visibility: flag holders of many different versions, many feet of scotch-brite reflective tape ALL over the bike, sewn-on reflective tape ALL over my gear, additional strips of bright colored fabric incorporated into my gear. Orange construction flags were stuck into my sleeping bag stuff sack straps, (they could withstand 65 mph in the back of an open pick-up truck while hitching a ride).

Made a mini-cell flashlight mount on the fender that would hold a solar rechargeable flashlight.

Dog spray holder on the other fender.

A loop of one inch webbing on the rear of the rear rack for lifting bike to work on it or move it.

Rear fender made of Coroplast and later from a Rubbermaid bucket lid.

Heidi riding her snow trike.

Heidi riding her snow trike.
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It has been mentioned by others that a woman touring solo is a relatively rare occurrence. Often women are concerned about safety and security and will not consider touring alone as a result. Was this much of a concern for you during your tour? Any helpful tips and tricks for other women considering a solo tour?

First of all, half the people on the road automatically think you are a guy so that cuts the worry in half for starters. Even with braids, boobs and a female voice I was addressed as masculine. Go figure.

Next, I think why so few women go on solo trips because women are more partner dependent than men. The women I spoke with that said they’d never do a trip like this alone explained many reasons: the most common block was that they would get lonely, then the next would be that they’d be scared and the runner ups would be that they won’t have the strength or were tied down to children. Now men would tell me they couldn’t do a trip like this because they couldn’t get the time off from work and had kids to support, never breathing a word of fear, but a few would talk about the loneliness too.

I did not feel unsafe at any time. I did feel like I wished curiosity seekers would leave me alone, but they were harmless tourists being nosey.

I guess my advice for women traveling alone would be to carry an air of fearlessness. Whether it’s how you feel or not if you just look confident, secure and have that Don’t-Mess-With-Texas aura around you people won’t bother you. If you can’t act in this manner at least carry a big can of bear spray on your belt and have a big stick on your bike. A bully plugs into fear; if you do not offer a receiving port they can not make the connection.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Also riding an unusual vehicle put people in a curious mode instead of the bully mode. They had no pigeon hole to categorize me into so they did not know how to approach me. If an aggressor does not know its adversary how can it successfully attack? Maybe the trike and its uniqueness protected me in a strange way. Even the cops that stopped me mad as fire didn’t know what to make of me and didn’t bully or harass me.

Now about psychos and loosely wrapped individuals… my advice is to act weirder than them and exit stage left as soon as possible.

Another protective measure I used was to camp in hiding. I would disappear into the woods without being seen and emerge the next morning in much the same way. If people don’t know you were there then there was a lower likelihood of interaction. Yeah, they could stumble across you by accident, but it would not be a premeditated meeting. They would probably be as surprised as you. I paid attention to my surroundings and listened to my instincts. Sometimes I camped in people’s yards and did not necessarily feel any safer.

From your writing it appears that you truly love connecting with nature. If you could have only done portions of your trip which sections would definitely need to be done based on the wonderful experience you had during your recent tour?

My favorites were the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive, Talimena Scenic Byway, Cassiar highway, Denali highway, Glacier National Park, Logan Pass, Smoky Mountain Natinal Park, and the Natchez Trace Parkway
.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Favorite foods during the tour were?

Eating the same thing day in and day out was my favorite. That meant I didn’t have to think about what I was cooking. I got into such a great ritual that the food prep went very quickly. I knew exactly what quantities to get and did not have to waste time in the decision making process. I ate rice for every breakfast until Idaho then I switched to oatmeal, (it cooked faster), lunches were sandwiches with cheese, salami, peanut butter, snacks were apples & BP, carrots & BP, bananas & BP & Choc chips, graham crackers & BP & Choc chips, Supper was almost always boiled potatoes & carrots sometimes with an additional vegetable and always a half pound of meat stuff. I drank canned juice and milk. I bought a pint of ice cream only twice for the entire trip. I guess my favorite was the Banana & BP & CC treat.

In your journal you mention using special construction flags to help increase your visibility in areas with heavy traffic. What other tips, tricks and techniques do you recommend for cyclists worried about transiting heavy traffic areas.

The louder and more visibly obnoxious you are the more the cars can see you. Duh! I started using the flags out of anger: “G.D. you cars! Are you blind?” It felt like I was being a little more proactive about NOT getting run over. And then drivers would tell me that they were happy to see all my flags because they wouldn’t have noticed me without them. Huh? I put those flags up because I was mad and hating cars and the cars responded by liking them. Interesting paradox that the impetus was anger and the end result was appreciation. Go figure.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

But really those flags were great. They looked retarded, but they caught everyone’s attention. Not a bad deal for a biker. I don’t care what they thought of me just as long as they took a second look. That second look saved my butt many a time. Also the on coming traffic would see me and they could pull to the shoulder thus giving the passing traffic more space and the opportunity to swing towards the center line. Overall it encouraged road sharing.

I also had an extra flag tucked inside my seat that had a two foot pole. That one I’d use when I did anything terribly drastic. Like cut across four lanes on an expressway, or make a left turn on a six lane road. I felt totally safe with my pink flag flapping in the sky. I stopped traffic in both directions once on the Alaska Highway to help a broken down motorcyclist push his bike in a U-turn. My joke was that on one side of the pink flag it said F.U. and the other side it said thank you. According to the lethality of the situation I’d flap the most appropriate side. It was written in invisible ink so I wouldn’t get arrested.

Also I would talk to the cars. “Hey Buddy, don’t you even DARE think of cutting into this lane.” Or, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I DO own this lane and I ain’t gonna share it. Not even with you.” That was the rolling commentary while I was in a good humor. The ratings dropped quickly to “R” with just the slightest provocation.

I guess this is my advice: possess the lane but always know your way out.

Heidi's delightful sense of humour comes through very nicely in this picture.

Heidi's delightful sense of humour comes through very nicely in this picture with her friend the mosquito.
Click to enlarge.

Any issues with wildlife?

Too many mosquitoes in Canada & Alaska, fortunately their number was worse than their bite. Saw bear, but they kept their distance from me. I practiced a medium level of anti-bear camping. I found ‘possums in a trash can one night that scared me with their noises until I found them and turned them loose. Had a raccoon pester me at a campground all night, I ended up collecting small rocks and piling them near my sleeping bag and sleeping against my bike. When I heard them approach I’d throw the rocks at the shadowy creatures. Some mice tried to get into my stuff at an Appalachian Trail shelter, but that was only during food prep while my food was spread out. After eating I hung my food and they no longer bothered me. That’s it.

What is your background with respect to long bicycle tours, hikes, paddles prior to this tour?

I did a 1,300 mile, one month bike trip the year before and that’s basically it for bike touring. I’ve done extensive backpacking trips, all solo of course. Through hiked the A.T. in ’87, did big sections of the Continental Divide trail & Pacific Crest Trail. Many, many canoe, kayak, rafting trips on white water rivers in Canada, the Northeast, and the Southwest. I basically lived on my raft for months for a few winters.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

317 days on tour is a long time. After that much time away are you finding it difficult to be back in everyday life again?

Naw, not really. I’ve reentered this helter-skelter world so many times now it’s not such a big stumbling block. I do grieve the solo traveler’s lifestyle every time I return, but I know the next trip will be in the making even before this one is completely over. Each trip rejuvenates me for the “other” world and every money raising stint readies me for the next launch into the unknown. It does feel weird not having lumpy things poking me when I sleep, eating in a chair at a table and changing into clean, dry underwear.

In your journal you mention possibly riding to South America. Is there another bicycle tour in your future? Are you tempted to hop back on the bike and start pedalling again?

Heidi's handsewn underseat gear back and overmitts.

Heidi's handsewn underseat gear back and overmitts.
Click to enlarge.

Of course, but I’ve got a sea kayaking trip I’m dreaming of that I have to prepare for so it will be in the distant future.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Where’s my shoulder massage after all this typing?

An interview with Heidi Domeisen.

 

Unfortunately I am located a bit too far north to help Heidi out with her shoulder massage but I left her comment in there because connecting once again with her wonderful sense of humour seemed like a great way to end the interview.

If you haven't read her journal yet then I heartily recomend it. Sprinkled throughout her adventure you will find many, many humourous incidents including her fun filled April Fool's joke on her fellow cyclists.

Heidi's journal can be found on the Crazyguyonabike web pages. Clicking on her name in this article will take you to the appropriate link.

 

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