Jessica Kelley: Solitude and Longing in the Yukon

Backcountry travel

I first got to know Coach Jessica Kelley in 2013 when she was a Cycle University coach. At the time she considered herself a triathlete and was training for the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon, an Ironman-scale competition with the ocean swim in a Fjord, and the run including a long mountain climb: Jessica’s idea of fun.

Since then, Jessica’s athletic progression has led her away from competitions and deeper and deeper into the wilderness. She has been a frequent participant in the UltraPedestrian Wilderness Challenge originated by Kathy and Ras Vaughan.

Jessica's 1,300 mile route
Jessica’s 1,300 mile route

She regularly does what she calls “adventure ‘runs” which are longer than a marathon distance, mostly solo, and link multiple trails.

Last summer she broke her ankle during an attempt of an UltraPedestrian Challenge route called Spider on Steroids, which crosses Spider Gap, east and north of Stevens Pass. Rather than call and wait for help, she slowly limped and butt-scooted the 6.5 miles back to the start, eventually aided by her husband Tom in the final 3.5 miles.

The Yukon backcountry rangers had a hard time believing her plan.
The Yukon backcountry rangers had a hard time believing her plan.

This year Jessica’s big project was a 1,300-mile “bikerafting” loop through Alaska she called “Where The River Meets The Road”:

Bikerafting is using a bike and a packraft to cross landscapes and explore new terrain. It involves biking around with a packraft attached to your bike, and then, upon reaching the water, inflating your packraft, lashing your bike to the bow, and paddling away.

The packraft I used is an Alpacka Caribou, listed at 5 lbs, and this seems about right. I lashed the raft to a lightweight rear rack on the back of my bike. I used a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Summit pack to carry my personal flotation device (PFD) and paddle. Normally I don’t like riding with backpacks, but this was a very light load and the pack carried the weight well.

Jessica's bike loaded on the packraft
Jessica’s bike loaded on the packraft
Jessica's bike loaded on her boat.
Jessica’s bike loaded on her boat.

Jessica has yet to do a write-up about “Where The River Meets The Road,” but when we chatted she mentioned that the most powerful experience she noticed was a tension between enjoying the solitude of solo wilderness travel and missing her family.

Which reminded me that I’ve probably had similar experiences. When I was in college in the early 1980s I did a couple of fairly ambitious solo backpacking trips in the Sierras. I was surprised that while the solo experience was certainly special, I also felt a kind of longing for some of my friends while I was out in the middle of nowhere.

That tension also reminds me of something I experience as part of a “mindfulness” meditation practice. In Buddhism, the First Noble Truth is “Dukkha,” which gets translated as “suffering”, “pain”, “unsatisfactoriness” or “stress.” The ideas of suffering and pain don’t resonate so much for me (I *enjoy* suffering during long bike rides, after all), but I am quite aware that a big component of life is an incessant feeling of “unsatisfactoriness” and “dissatisfaction.” For me, awareness of Dukkha gets magnified in certain contexts, like a silent meditation retreat or being alone in the wilderness.

Look for Jessica’s thoughts about solitude and longing in a future post in her blog. And, keep her blog in mind whenever you are looking for detailed backcountry trip reports.

Despite experiencing some longing this time around, Jessica says she usually doesn’t feel loneliness when she’s solo in the backcountry. The vastness of the Yukon didn’t speak to her the way the dramatic and intimidating Cascades do, but it was one of the wildest places she’s ever been. In the Cascades there is usually a trail nearby–an escape route. There was no escape route on parts of the the Yukon trip, and the landscape was new and unknown. All of that colored how she experienced solitude in the Yukon.

Planning plays a huge role in Jessica’s adventures, and is as much of the fun as the trips themselves.

Jessica carried the packraft her bike.
Jessica carried the packraft her bike.

Thinking through every detail makes me confident that I can pull off a particular adventure. I believe that planning is one way to mitigate risk. I’m able to expand my limits by learning and practicing skills ahead of time, gaining competency, and getting comfortable with my equipment. That said, I think it’s also important to maintain some flexibility once the adventure actually begins. For example, although I had a detailed itinerary for this trip, I ended up changing things dramatically as I went, based on weather, terrain and other factors. Just as important as planning, is the ability and willingness to modify that plan on the fly.

Headnets were mandatory equipment for this trip.
Headnets were mandatory equipment for this trip.

What’s Jessica’s next project?

I don’t have any projects on the horizon as big as this most recent Alaska trip. There are a couple local WA routes I’m excited about, that involve a mix of bike, hike/run, and packraft. I’m hoping to get those done before the snow flies! Speaking of snow, I do love Alaska in the winter, and hope to go back at least once this winter to ride/race my fatbike!

Jessica got a spectacular view of Denali.
Jessica got a spectacular view of Denali.
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