Kurt Refsnider knew whatever he was seeing wasn’t supposed to be there. It didn’t seem possible.
Because it was red.
In an endless landscape of snow, dirt and rock.
Refsnider was 180 miles from the nearest village, 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 1,700 miles north of Maine, in the middle of Baffin Island, one of the most remote corners of the already far-flung Canadian province of Nunavut.
And there, where he was far more likely to see yet another polar bear than come upon anything remotely human, he was seeing red.
Refsnider didn’t know it, but he was closing the distance between two parallel existences from different times. He was finally about to connect with someone whose adventurous ethic he shared and whose audacious path he had unknowingly followed — for more than 2,500 miles, on a mountain bike, over mountains and deserts, along the Continental Divide.
Someone he had never met.
And never would.
YMIS and those who have it
Emergency room technicians and Grand Teton National Park rangers share an acronym, YMIS, for something they often encounter in their lines of work: young male’s immortality syndrome.
Mike Moe had it.
So did his brother, Dan, younger by one year. So did many of their buddies in Laramie, Wyo., a town nestled between the mountains’ siren call and the howling winds of the prairie.
They were always outdoors, testing themselves against the elements and their own limitations in every way imaginable. By the ninth grade, Mike and Mark were climbing into the Medicine Bow Mountains on winter campouts, often choosing the coldest, stormiest weekends simply to maximize the prospect of adventure.
“We got through a lot of things by the skin of our teeth,” recalls author/adventurer Mark Jenkins, Mike Moe’s best friend since their high school days. “And we loved that.”
During one of their winter excursions the temperature in Laramie plummeted to 56 below zero, worrying their parents back home. The boys? Relatively cozy inside the snow cave they had dug.
And Mike was probably chuckling.
“The worst things got, the more he made jokes about them. That was his signature,” Jenkins says. “The stickier it would get, the more fun he’d be having.”
Seeking out adventure
Kurt Refsnider wasn’t born to adventure, but he was weaned on it.
His dad, Ron, would go cross-country skiing near their Minnesota home with little Kurt, then too young to walk, nestled into the pack on his back. As soon as Kurt could stand, he was on skis, and not long after that he was backpacking, canoeing and skiing.
When he began riding bicycles, it was only when he left the pavement — heading out on mountain-bike trails or even places where trails didn’t exist — that he was hooked. At 12, he told his mother he thought he was addicted to bicycling.
Kurt began, as his father says, to “seek out adventure that probably goes beyond the edge of danger.” Extreme mountain biking. Elite-level competitive cyclocross racing. And, later, rock climbing.
One afternoon early in his freshman year of high school, he stumbled into the family home pushing his mountain bike, having no idea how or why he was in so much pain.
“He said, ‘I can’t remember, but I think I crashed,’” Ron Refsnider says. “He had no short-term memory. We took him to the emergency room right away, and for two hours we were wondering if he was going to get his memory back.”
Kurt got most of it back, but much of that day remains a blank page. He doesn’t remember crashing, or pushing the bike home, or even having that conversation with his parents.
“What I remember about that day was being wheeled around on a gurney going in to have a CAT scan,” he says. “It was one of those weird accidents. Nothing else was really messed up.”
Oh, except for his bike helmet. That was smashed.
Moes cross the Divide
In 1982 the Moes and a couple of friends traveled the Continental Divide, on foot and only occasionally on an established route. “Less than 100 miles was actually signed as the Continental Divide trail,” recalls trek participant Bill Kuestner. “For most of it, we just made up the trail as we went.”
Two years later, Mike and Dan Moe completed that rugged route again, this time on mountain bikes.
They were two guys on fat-tired bikes that were no doubt heavier and less trail-worthy as those of today, doing something no one else had done, well, just because. Mike Moe recounted the trip the following year in two articles, accompanied by Dan’s photographs, in now-defunct Bike Rider magazine.
Like Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers to their west, the Moes were in a race against time, needing to complete their journey before the early-winter snows covered their route.
In the desert, they hit the trail by 6:30 a.m. to beat the brain-baking heat. They bathed in windmill holding tanks in the desert, avoided elk thundering past, marveled at a strolling family of peccaries and removed a tarantula from one of Mike’s sidebags after a rest break in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.
Once in the mountains, they pioneered trails that didn’t exist over long miles of seemingly impassable terrain. “Some people might view this as a real headache. We prefer to see it,” Mike Moe wrote wryly, “as ‘the charm of the Divide.’ ”
With the mountain-biking boom not yet born, this seemingly aberrant behavior was not lost on people they met along the way. When they asked a Montana storekeeper about a route they wanted to follow, he laughed and retorted, “Well, ya sure as hell can’t go there!”
Well, they sure did.
Mike and Dan Moe didn’t know it at the time, but they were blazing the route of what two decades later would become the Tour Divide — a 2,700-mile mountain-bike race that annually attracts a few dozen hardy, adventurous souls.
In 2009, one of them was Kurt Refsnider.
Refsnider crosses it, too
After moving to Colorado to pursue his doctorate in geology, Refsnider discovered endurance mountain-bike racing.
He heard about and became fascinated with a race called the Grand Loop, a circuit in western Colorado and eastern Utah that was “360 miles, one little town with a general store along the route, and that’s pretty much it. Route-finding is a huge challenge on that. Supposedly there’s posts every mile marking the route, but most of them are missing.”
This was 2008. The Grand Loop drew a grand total of four entrants that year, including Refsnider, and there was so much snow at the higher reaches of the route that two of the other three dropped out before the end of the first day.
Still, Refsnider pushed on, despite riding into “snow drifts (that) were up into the trees. I didn’t even see how you could follow the single-track up there, much less navigate it.” His body began to betray him the next day, no longer willing to survive on Clif Bars.
“If you can’t eat, you can’t ride,” Refsnider says, looking back. “It’s just this downward spiral. And I wore the wrong shoes, so my feet were hurting so much after all that hike-a-bike.” He finished the race at 1 a.m., the broken portions of his bike now held together with duct tape, and swore to himself he would never do anything like that again.
Instead, the next year he did something far more physically and emotionally daunting: He took on the Tour Divide and finished in 18 days, 11 hours and 13 minutes — making him the second fastest rider in the history of the race.
Making one’s life count
Refsnider’s refusal to drop out of the Grand Loop and his subsequent willingness — fervor, even — to take on the Tour Divide would have brought an approving nod from Mike Moe.
“Mike was very hard-core, and just never wanted to turn around unnecessarily,” says Diana Kocornik, who married Mike in 1988.
But where she and Mike were living when they fell in love speaks volumes about them both: They were in the African country of Swaziland, Kocornik teaching high school and Moe working for CARE, a humanitarian organization fighting global poverty.
For people who knew Moe, that was nothing new. His 1986 trip to Mount Aconcagua in the Andes was a fundraiser for Save The Children, and he organized numerous hunger-awareness projects in Laramie. By the mid-1990s, he was executive director of the non-profit Wyoming P.A.R.E.N.T., dedicated to improving the well-being of the state’s children and families.
“That was all rooted in faith. He was a Christian,” Kocornik says. “He didn’t want his life to be all about experiencing the outdoors. He wanted it to count in other ways as well.”
Still, the Moe brothers were most at home when immersed in outdoor adventure, whether together or with other friends. In 1987, while Mike was in Swaziland, Dan Moe mountain-biked the Continental Divide of Australia. And in 1991, Mike and three friends — including Jenkins — traveled to the headwaters of Africa’s Niger River in order to kayak the river from its source to the ocean.
A passage in “To Timbuktu,” Jenkins’ remarkable book about the Niger expedition, perhaps best describes Mike Moe’s spirit.
A harrowing descent through a particularly dangerous stretch of whitewater had left two of the men questioning whether the end was worth the extraordinary risk. One of them — his voice “quivering with rage,” Jenkins wrote — objected, “This isn’t boating!”
Jenkins’ next paragraph:
Mike can’t stop grinning. He turns to me and says quietly, “Nope. This is exploring.”
Bears, scares and something red
Though he rode through hundreds of miles of prime grizzly bear territory on the Tour Divide, Kurt Refsnider never saw one. Ironically, his biggest scares along the route came from the three porcupines he nearly ran over — “these harmless little animals that just kind of came out of nowhere,” he chuckles.
Three weeks after completing that race spanning the full length of the Continental Divide, he was back on Baffin Island, where he had already spent parts of the previous two summers doing doctoral research on ice-sheet erosion.
And this time, bears were the ones creating those heart-pounding moments.
Numerous daily polar bear sightings convinced Refsnider, his advisor and a graduate student to switch from camping outdoors — which they did for the first few nights — and retreat to a small hunting cabin. Their first night there, a bear spent five minutes trying to break in, clawing and pounding on the wall of what Refsnider described as a “weak little structure.”
“We stomped and yelled, trying to scare the bear away,” Refsnider wrote later. “But we must have smelled pretty dang good.”
But that wasn’t what Refsnider, then 27, will recall most vividly about that 2009 summer on Baffin Island.
That moment would come further inland, while Refsnider was crossing a boulder field next to the Barnes Ice Cap, a 90-mile-long hunk of ancient ice that spanned the horizon. “As far as you can see to the north,” he recalls, “and as far as you can see to the south.”
And in that vast, desolate landscape of white and brown and gray, Refsnider saw something else.
On their way to Baffin
Mike Moe had the heart to take on any challenge, any mountain. But his lungs were another matter. As far back as 1980, when he and Mark Jenkins set out to climb Mount McKinley (Denali) in Alaska, Moe had been susceptible to pulmonary edema at high altitudes.
He got only as high as 14,200 feet on McKinley — still 6,000 feet below the summit — before fluid buildup in his lungs forced him to turn back. It happened again six years later at Aconcagua, and again seven years after that, on a 1993 expedition to ascend unclimbed peaks in Tibet.
“He really wanted to do big mountains, and I think it was a major disappointment to him that he was susceptible to pulmonary edema,” says Tim Banks, another Laramie friend and climbing buddy. “He was the man of boundless enthusiasm — the kind of guy who thought, ‘You can push this, you can adapt, you can make it happen.’
“When he came home from Tibet, he was really bummed.”
But unbowed. It wasn’t long before he, his brother and his friends were planning another adventure. Navigating a major whitewater river on Asia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, perhaps. Finding something challenging in the northernmost parts of Alaska at the coldest time of the year, maybe.
The destination they eventually came up with? Baffin Island.
The mysterious find
Kurt Refsnider pointed for the others at what he was seeing.
“My advisor is red-green color-blind. He couldn’t see it,” Refsnider recalls.
It wasn’t on the route they were headed, but the mystery was intriguing enough to make it worth the detour. So they made their way toward it.
It was very slow going. “It takes a long time to get anywhere,” Refsnider says, “because you’re hopping from boulder to boulder.”
The red object, whatever it was, was atop a steep, little hill, perhaps only 20 meters tall. Refsnider and his two companions scrambled to the top and were very surprised by what they found.
The red that had caught his eyes was a fuel canister. Next to it were four bicycles he recognized as being mid-1990s-era vintage, and three sleds rigged up with aluminum conduit to be towed behind the bicycles.
Also in the neat pile — which clearly had sat unseen and untouched for many seasons — were two ice axes.
Painted on the handle of one, in what looked like silver nail polish, was something Refsnider decided must be initials:
M O E
The boats that never came
Upon reaching that small rise in August 1995, Mike Moe, Dan Moe, Sharon Kava and Brad Humphrey had just completed history’s first bicycle crossing of the Barnes Ice Cap.
Facing the same boulder fields that would make such slow going for Kurt Refsnider’s team a quarter-century later, the quartet decided to leave behind the bikes and sleds. Carrying shotguns to ward off the polar bears, the foursome hiked the rest of the way to a fiord on Baffin Island’s east coast.
Mike Moe had made arrangements for two Hobie Cats — small, twin-hulled sailboats — to be shipped to the town of Clyde River. An Inuit outfitter was to deliver them to the fiord and the group would then sail back, two per boat, to Clyde River and their long flights back to the United States.
But when they radioed the outfitter, the boats had not been delivered.
They waited. For days. Something was holding up the boats’ delivery to Clyde River. Their food ran out, and they resorted to picking berries for sustenance. Finally, with no telling when or even if the Hobie Cats would arrive, the group radioed the outfitter to pick them up for the final leg of the trip.
They never made it to Clyde River.
The singular coincidence
Back at camp, Kurt Refsnider used the research team’s satellite phone to make a few calls, hoping to find what bike-riding Baffin Island explorer might have the initials M.O.E. One of his calls was to his father.
Some online searching led Ron Refsnider to an Outside Magazine article written by Mark Jenkins, which explained in poignant detail what had happened to Mike and Dan Moe and their friends.
This past summer, he found the same article reprinted in “Cordillera,” a Tour Divide literary journal edited by Eric Bruntjen of Yakima.
This time, though, Jenkins’ story was prefaced by an editor’s note that explained the Moes’ unbreakable connection to the Tour Divide.
Upon reading that, Ron Refsnider understood the singular nature of the coincidence. “The hair on the back of my neck,” he recalls, “was standing up pretty high at that point.”
His son, one of only 65 people in the world to have completed the 2,700-mile Tour Divide mountain-bike race, had come upon the belongings of the two men who had pioneered it.
And those men are gone.
Tragedy on the icy seas
The Inuit guide’s small aluminum motorboat was two miles from shore in calm water when the group came upon a pod of a 10 to 15 bowhead whales. One surfaced directly under the boat, flipping it and tossing the guide and his four American passengers into the icy water.
While the guide had a well-insulated survival suit, the others had only life jackets. Their survival suits were to have been delivered with the Hobie Cats, which had never arrived.
The guide survived the ordeal, and his wife related his version of the Americans’ final hours in some detail to Jenkins.
In water only a degree or two above freezing, most people succumb to hypothermia and die within 90 minutes. Dan and Mike Moe survived the longest, holding onto each other — “hands clasped over the hull,” Jenkins wrote — for a seemingly impossible six hours. When Dan finally slipped away, Mike couldn’t hold onto his younger brother.
Two hours later, he joined him.
The final connection
In 1996, Mark Jenkins, Tim Banks and another friend of the Moes climbed a rock face in the Medicine Bow Mountains to mount a plaque commemorating the four adventurers who died in the waters off Baffin Island.
Last September, Kurt Refsnider and the woman he’s dating went into the Medicine Bows in hopes of seeing the plaque, but couldn’t find it.
He’s OK with that.
“I don’t think (the Moes’ friends) left it there for other people to find,” he says. “Maybe it was just for themselves.”
He and his friend camped two nights there, experiencing the once-upon-a-time stomping grounds of Mike and Dan Moe, where they had stoked their passion for adventure. He felt drawn there, “which is strange. I normally don’t have compulsions like that.”
Going where the Moes had gone, he says, “just felt like something I needed to do.”
Of course, Kurt Refsnider had been doing that for most of his life. He just hadn’t known it at the time.
• Outdoors editor Scott Sandsberry can be reached at 509-577-7689 or firstname.lastname@example.org