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In Search of the Arctic Circle

Gustavo Acuna

‘I’ll stop here for a while.’ It is just too painful to keep riding. I have already covered 850km and, for the majority of that time, it had been raining like hell. There were times I couldn’t feel my toes because of the low temperatures, and I managed to injure some fingers during a bike-chain repair. This is just the beginning of my grievances, but there’s no one around to hear my dissatisfaction with the world in general. I am alone in this humid and rocky terrain, where I have heard myself conversing with clouds, imaginary people and a number of the dead animals who seem part of the arctic landscape. To cap it all off, thousands of giant mosquitos still chase me, despite the fact I am cycling. However, my greatest concerns are the saddle sores and my left achilles. Any biker knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cycling and the adventures that come with it, and this is not the first time I’ve undertaken such a venture. However, the current situation was taking it too far. At that very moment I wished I were at home, chilling out to some adventure shows with a beer in my hand. But wait, this was no place to stop; there was only moss, lichen, stones, insects, bushes and a few trees. Plus, even if I had truly decided I wanted to return home now, there was no one who could take me away from here – I was too isolated.

I stopped pedalling some minutes before due to the pain in my left achilles. I had been experiencing this problem for the past three days and the lesion is now reaching the red zone. It was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the pain. I had run out of painkillers and regrettably there is nothing I can do right now.

‘Only 150km and I will be there.’ How do I reach the Arctic Circle? I need to focus, get motivated and proceed. I had been stuck in this place for 15 minutes, between bushes and some trails and all I was thinking about was the excruciating pain I was in. In such a situation you can quickly find yourself questioning every action and thought. The same question I had also been asked by a local farmer a couple of days before: ‘Why are you exposing yourself to these conditions that arise from such an environment?’ This is self-inflicted pain and there is no arguing otherwise.

At that very moment I wished I were at home, chilling out to some adventure shows with a beer in my hand. But wait, this was no place to stop; there was only moss, lichen, stones, insects, bushes and a few trees.
In search of the Arctic Circle
I couldn’t believe that at midnight I would be cooking with the sun beating at my back. This was a bizarre moment but it matched the arctic environment perfectly. After devouring a pot full of pasta I clambered into my tent and fell asleep with the same clothes I had been wearing for the last three days.
Suddenly a male reindeer appeared from the woods. He was very close; this giant, beautiful animal. I still recall those huge black eyes peering at me, as though he was asking what I was doing there. And why didn’t I just continue with the ride instead of focusing on all the negatives. It felt as though he was saying that I needed to just bite my tongue and keep on riding – that was what I should be doing! The kingly stag then turned away and headed off into the woods, but not before stopping once more and turning back. Once again he stared at me intensely. ‘Why don’t you just ride? Do it!’ And then he disappeared, into the trees and bushes.

Shortly after, another one appeared. This reindeer however did not waste any of his time trying to convince me to keep going on my ride to the north. He simply passed by and joined his regal friend deep into the nordic forest. I was impressed. Did this conversation actually occur, or was the loneliness and physical pain inducing such vivid hallucinations? Regardless, this animal-human interaction completely changed my point of view on the situation I found myself in. I decided to bite my tongue, silence the negative thoughts and carry on with my ride north.

Of course I was still struggling with the pedalling initially but things were changing. The rain and clouds disappeared, the sky turned blue and even the sun began to shine. What a beautiful scene to witness for the last leg of my tiring journey! That evening, I didn’t stop until very late, around 11pm although it seemed as though it could be 6pm. During the summer time, at that latitude (66°44’33’’) there is almost no darkness during the night.

I couldn’t believe that at midnight I would be cooking with the sun beating at my back. This was a bizarre moment but it matched the arctic environment perfectly. After devouring a pot full of pasta I clambered into my tent and fell asleep with the same clothes I had been wearing for the last three days. I was too exhausted to even consider the idea of changing into my ‘pyjamas’. In the past few days, I had been unable to find a location to shower, but I did come across a beautiful and impressive cold arctic lake. I have never enjoyed water so much in all my years travelling by bike than at that place.

The following evening I had an unusual camping experience. Around 4am I heard steps approaching my tent. I had pitched up in a dense forest far away from the civilisation so this was very alarming. I was frozen in place, adrenaline filling my body, and I was wild in anticipation. Somebody was out there, close to my tent; it must have a plan. Myself? Did I have a plan for this situation? How could I? This was highly unexpected. My cycling shoe was the hardest ‘weapon’ I had in my tent, so I clutched onto it tight and waited defensively. The silence was now deafening. I was on high alert. Should I unzip the tent? Or was it better to wait before reacting? Luckily the noise didn’t occur again and my whirling thoughts and worries soon disappeared too. Now I just had to get myself to fall asleep again. To this day it still baffles me what that noise was or could have been, but I guess it is one of those arctic mysteries that will never be solved.

In search of the Arctic Circle
Today is the day! I have 70km left until I reach my destination. If everything goes as planned this will be my last day cycling. The excitement washes over me. After more than a week of pedalling with my eyes fixed towards my end goal, I feel elated at the thoughts of finishing this marvellous trip. In order to ensure my arrival to the Arctic Circle that day, I have decided to use tarmac roads. It took around five hours to reach Rovaniemi, the city closest to my goal destination. From there lay only 20km between myself and the Arctic Circle.

The sun is shining and it is getting hot. I prepare for the last leg with some protein bars and soft drinks purchased in Rovaniemi. It is to be an incredible Friday afternoon.

‘I can see the flag!’ I am now just 500 meters away. I decide to stop and enjoy from a distance the scene I had been dreaming about for many months. That small spot on the map seems giant now. I slowly approached the finish line whilst listening to Swedish Heavy Metal music with a big smile etched across my face. I stop a metre before the pole marking the edge of the Arctic, enjoying the pleasure of the moment. With one hand I reached out and touched the circle and screamed silently to myself: Bien Mierda! Finally, on the July 26, 2013 at 14:14 I reach the Arctic Circle, and with this action I conclude my unbelievable cycling adventure to the North.

As a finale, to make for a spectacular finish to this unforgettable experience, a massive electric storm begins its display on the biggest cinema screen in the world. The fresh arctic sky is dark in its perfection. It is now time for a celebration and a return home.

Born in Chile, Gustavo Acuna moved then to Germany for a PhD and a postdoctoral position in Oncology. Medical scientist by profession but mountaineer, adventurer and endurance cyclist by nature. He is pursuing a big dream of cycling his best ten routes worldwide and writing a book about that great journey. He is currently working in the UK, training and organizing his fifth challenge, the west sahara dessert crossing.

Gustavo has already crossed the Andes, the Alps, complete a Patagonia ride and reached the arctic circle with his bike. View details on Facebook.

Thank you to Kusi Kimani for helping with the text edition.

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