Blizzards and Meth Labs and Bears. Oh my!

Shanna Ladd is a bike commuter in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley (a.k.a. “The Mat-Su”), north of Anchorage. She’s getting ready to bike commute through her second winter. Her summer/fall commute looks like this:

Matanuska-Susitna Valley
Well, it doesn’t always look like this.

Shanna commented on my post about marketing cycling to women, and told me that what she needed was a fatbike, with or without flowers:

I live in Alaska and commute by bike. Last winter we had a record breaking snowfall. This season weve had record breaking rain. I commute 20 miles per day. I take [snowmobile] and four-wheeler trails. Needless to say, a skinny bike just doesnt make it. My daughter got a fatbike. And that is what I will be riding come October. Problem: it doesnt come in our size.

She also told me she could use some bear-proof panniers — highlighting yet another way that the cycling industry ignores the needs of women.

(Sheesh, Ladies, it’s a wonder any of you cycle at all. You can’t even find a decent set of bear-proof bike panniers. I’m glad men don’t have these problems.)

Shanna Ladd on her Surly Pugsley
Shanna on her Surly Pugsley

In May of 2011, at the age of 48, Shanna bought a Wal-Mart bike. She rode that box-store BSO ten miles into Wasilla, and was encouraged by the fact that she didn’t die. “So my goal became to commute by bike.”

Then she tried winter commuting through 2011’s record snowfall in Alaska.

“The snow kept coming so the trails didnt have a hard pack and my skinny tires sank,” she told me. “I attempted to carry my bike, push my bike and then ride some in the highway but it was way too dangerous because I had to ride directly in the tire vehicle tracks. I couldnt see well enough if someone was coming behind me. It just didnt work.”

It just didn’t work.

What didn’t work? Bike commuting? No. Shanna concluded correctly that the problem was gear and preparation — not that winters and bike commuting were irreconcilable.

Shanna realized that what she needed was reliable transportation. But she didn’t fall back on the accepted definition of reliable transportation — four wheels, a metal box, and internal combustion. She needed a fatbike, like her daughter has.

Fortunately, Surly just came out with an extra-small (14-inch frame) version of their Pugsley fatbike, and Shanna got herself one — a nice upgrade from the Wal-Mart bike. She saved up for her Pugsley by suspending her car insurance for five months.

And she has thought through the logistics of bike commuting.

Factoring for bears:

I try to keep my food at my office so I am not taking food back and forth a lot, but we do have to take food with us. We also bring our groceries home by bike, including the salmon/sweet potato dog food!! But we normally shop during daylight hours. We carry Counter Assault Bear Spray.

And factoring for Wasilla meth labs:

We found out where the neighbors cook their meth on the BBQ grill and where the police manhunts tend to be, etc. And that is why the fat bike idea is so great. It gives us more options of where to ride.

(Ah yes. The other thing I know about Wasilla.)

Mat-Su Commuter Path
A Mat-Su Commuter Path. It’s not always an Arctic hellscape.

It’s not even winter yet, and Shanna and her daughter are emboldened enough by their preparations that, what the hell, “We’ve now decided on no car, and will cancel our insurance again. So what that means is, we do everything without a car (obviously).”

Oh, and did I mention that they don’t have running water during the winter? They have to haul water to their house, so they are looking for a good bike cargo trailer that can carry 300 pounds of water. Meanwhile, they’ve made do with a used bike child trailer, and a garden cart.

The garden cart was used to haul a wooden wardrobe to her office to keep clean clothes at work.

Wooden Wardrobe
No, that’s not a coffin. It’s a wardrobe for keeping clothes at work.

In my conversations with Shanna, I don’t get any sense that she’s trying to be a heroic cyclist, or seeking adventure. Instead, she has merely looked at the economics of car ownership in a way that prioritizes family, time, and health. And she concluded that car dependence was in opposition to these priorities.

Like the characters in The Wizard of Oz, it was the overblown fears that deterred them from fulfilling their goals. Yes, there really are blizzards and meth labs and bears (Oh my) in the Mat-Su. But exaggerating these dangers, and locking oneself in a metal box comes at a cost — both financial and in quality of life.

And for the rest of us who live in lower latitudes — from Lillehammer to Lima — What’s our excuse? Why do so many of us park the bike in the garage as soon as the temperature drops?

My gut reaction is that, You’re all a bunch of wimps, addicted to your creature comforts! But that’s not really it. It’s more a mentality that fails to account for the time we spend paying for cars in our lives — the hours of our lives spent at our jobs that are claimed by all the costs of car use and car ownership.

A paper by Paul Joseph Tranter, PhD, published by the National Institutes of Health, posits that

…a heavy reliance on cars as a supposedly fast mode of transport consumes more time and money than a reliance on supposedly slower modes of transport (walking, cycling and public transport). Lack of time is a major reason why people do not engage in healthy behaviours. Any attempt to save time through increasing the speed of motorists is ultimately futile.

Shanna figured that out all by herself:

After riding bikes we started to realize the huge financial and health benefits. Before I started biking, walking around my block one time I was really tired and the car was a huge money drain. So the whole thing was very beneficial.

And most of us don’t even need bear proof panniers.

I’ll be checking in with Shanna throughout the winter.

Here are a bunch more photos Shanna sent me (and one that I sent to her):

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