Video by Luc Mehl // Photos by Luc Mehl + Eric Parsons
The Nulato Hills are a relatively unknown area of Western Alaska, even to experienced ambassador Luc Mehl, who has grown up in the state and is well versed on what it has to offer. But, after researching any satellite imagery he could find, he decided that the region looked ripe for a bikepacking route. So, Luc teamed up with Revelate Designs founder/owner Eric Parsons to come up with a ~100-mile route along Muskox trails from the village of Nulato. We recently caught up with him for a quick chat about the trip and some insight into exploring such an untravelled wilderness.
To your knowledge, has anyone attempted a route through the Nulato Hills before? On a bike, or otherwise?
Ha, absolutely not. The Nulato Hills are very seldom travelled, even by the locals. It was very challenging to find any beta on what to expect. I had never heard of the Hills until a wedding this summer… a guy introduced himself to me, said he liked my trips, and that I should check out the Nulato Hills. So I did! Our entire plan was based on low-resolution satellite imagery.
Given that the area is pretty unique, is there anything in particular that you take into consideration when planning such a route?
One of my priorities whenever visiting an area like Nulato is to respect the local community and contribute to the village [population: 264]. For this trip, we brought 30 lbs of fresh produce for the school: a pineapple, melons, mandarins, avocados for the students, coffee and organic half and half for the teachers. As far as the actual trip planning, I put a lot of effort into my Google Earth / Gaia GPS tracks, being sure to include options, bailouts, etc.
Has bikepacking altered your approach to exploring the backcountry?
It’s kind of a love/hate thing so far. Few things get me as frustrated as carrying a bike through thick brush. But it doesn’t take much time riding a bike before I reach the ‘flow’ state, thrilled to be rolling, flying, and in control of the bike. But I have a lot to learn. I’m enjoying exploring satellite imagery for other riding destinations.
Is there anything you do to minimize your impact of bikes in the backcountry?
So far my bikepacking destinations are so untravelled that I’m not concerned about damaging the terrain. Most people are not willing to carry a bike for 10 hours, for good reason! It is hard to imagine enough bike travel in remote Alaska to do any environmental damage. Closer to town we hike-a-bike on the trail system, but that feels low impact too. So… either I’m naive, or there just aren’t sufficient people doing this kind of trip to be doing damage.
What exactly is going on with your Ultamid 2 setup?
We were proud to have figured out a system using a single 6 oz collapsible trekking pole ski-strapped to the bike frame, as the center pole for the mid. It worked really well. The photos should explain the rest.
What was the biggest surprise on this trip?
I’ve never been anywhere in Alaska that didn’t have easy water access every few hours. But we didn’t find any easy water on the ridge. We used the mid for catchment one night… collecting 7 liters of water by emptying cups at the corners every time one of us woke up. But after a rainless night we had to start pulling water off the leaves. I used a handkerchief, Eric used glove liners. We explored the different plants and discovered that blueberry leaves held the most water.
Luc is an accomplished explorer and one of our most veteran ambassadors. Since 2012 he has been providing critical feedback on our gear, and on this particular trip put our 4400 Porter, Ultamid 2 and The Shell to the test. For more insights on backcountry travel in Alaska please visit his site: thingstolucat.com, and give him a follow on Instagram.