August 30, 2001 11:00 pm
Michael Dunlavey of La Grande hikes up a portion of the Alaska Range during the Armed Forces Eco-Challenge. (Submitted photo).
Michael Dunlavey of La Grande hikes up a portion of the Alaska Range during the Armed Forces Eco-Challenge. (Submitted photo).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Mountain biking is an exhilarating activity.

Still, there are times when a mountain biker would welcome a shot of caffeine.

Just ask U.S. Army Capt. Michael Dunlavey of La Grande.

Dunlavey found himself fighting the urge to sleep while mountain biking during a portion of the Armed Forces Eco-Challenge earlier this summer in Alaska.

Competitors traversed about 150 miles of rugged country and rivers via mountain bikes, mountain climbing, canoeing and rafts. Eco-challenge races involve four-member teams that must complete the course together.

Dunlavey was well past the midway point of the event when he found himself dozing off briefly while riding a mountain bike. Other members of his team were also struggling to stay awake. There was something about mountain biking that was putting the team to sleep.

We agreed that we had to take some more breaks, Dunlavey said.

Its remarkable that Dunlavey and his teammates were even awake. They had been going for about three days and had only gotten about three hours of sleep.

Sleep deprivation was just one of many things competitors had to deal with. They were perpetually uncomfortable, in part because their feet were always wet.

We were running through rivers and streams constantly, Dunlavey said.

The problem got worse when the team rafted down streams and rivers. The rafts were always buoyant but filled with water.

Our feet would be immersed in water two to three hours at a time, Dunlavey said.

Cold water and long hours on his feet took a toll.

My feet were numb for two weeks afterward because of the pounding and the cold water, Dunlavey said. They didnt feel right for awhile.

The misery of wet feet was complemented by the perpetual presence of mosquitoes.

They are called the Alaskan air force. It is hard to convey how terrible they are. It was unbelievable. There were swarms of millions of mosquitoes, Dunlavey said.

The mosquitoes are so bad in Alaska that they have caused herds of caribou to stampede, and moose will often run into water up to their nostrils to escape mosquitoes, he said.

Dunlaveys team did not have much repellent or special clothing to protect them from mosquitoes because the items were too heavy to pack.

We just tried to cover our faces and hands, Dunlavey said.

The team stayed in a state of perpetual motion because of the mosquitoes.

The best repellent is to keep moving. They (the mosquitoes) kept you walking, Dunlavey said.

The Armed Forces Eco-Challenge started at Allen Army Airfield at Fort Greely and ended at Quartz Lake south of Fairbanks.

Dunlaveys team completed the rugged course in 4 1/2 days. It placed 12th out of 22 teams. The winning team, which was from Alaska, finished in 2 1/2 days. The Alaskan team qualified for the world championship eco-challenge, which will be conducted in October in New Zealand.

Dunlavey competed with a team comprised of two other men and a woman. All teams had to be co-ed with at least one member of the opposite sex.

The team averaged about 30 miles a day. One of the most difficult parts was trekking through brushy, circuitous trails.

There was a lot bushwhacking. It was brutal, Dunlavey said.

Dunlaveys team competed in memory of a fallen comrade, U.S. Capt. Milton Palmer. Palmer died during a training accident at the U.S. Army Ranger School in Florida in 1995.

All teams participating in the Armed Forces Challenge had to pay a $4,000 entry fee. All fees were donated to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Inc., a national non-profit organization that provides services to those who have lost a loved one while serving in the Armed Forces.

Dunlaveys quartet was named Team American Legion in recognition of its primary sponsor.

None of the teams knew what type of course they would have to trek until the day of the competition. This made it impossible for entrants to know what to focus on during training. Dunlavey trained four to six hours a day. He often would run 10 miles, swim for 45 minutes and bicycle about two hours a day. Dunlavey also mountain biked and hiked.

He said the training regime was effective. However, he wished he had spent more time hiking since the course required him to do so much of it.

Dunlavey said he could not have completed the eco-challenge without the help and support he received from a number of people in La Grande. They include his wife, Tammy; and Sandy Mink, a fitness trainer at Grande Ronde Fitness Club.

Dunlavey was sponsored locally by Blue Mountain Sports and Grande Ronde Fitness Club.

Dunlavey, who volunteers as a youth soccer coach, has lived in La Grande for about two years. He works at La Grandes National Guard Armory. He came to La Grande from Fort Knox, Ky.

Dunlaveys team members were Don Kent of Arizona, Steve Kreis of Pennsylvania and Mary Van Dyke of Pennsylvania. They had never met each other prior to the eco-challenge. They got connected via the Internet.

The team members got along well enough that they may compete in the Armed Forces Eco-Challenge again next summer, Dunlavey said.

This despite the fact that Dunlavey and the others know the enormity of the challenge.

It is definitely the hardest thing Ive ever done, Dunlavey said.

The Armed Forces Eco-Challenge will be shown on the USA television network in November.


Leg 1: Mountain biking, 81.4 kilometers Competitors biked off the tarmac on Allen Air Field at Fort Greely and into the wilderness of interior Alaska. For 81.4 kilometers, AFEC teams crossed waist-high, whitewater creeks and rode up and down steep, rocky hills.

Leg 2: Mountaineering, 17.9 kilometers Racers climbed a steep, 4,800-foot moraine and along a ridge overlooking the west face of Devils Thumb. Then they descended a steep gully, cautiously watching for avalanches and loose rock. At 5,400 feet the climbers put on crampons and ascended to the top of a cliff with the help of fixed ropes. The climbers then donned equipment for glacial travel and crossed over to a snow-covered peak and a set of fixed ropes. The climbers then made their descent.

Leg 3: Mountain biking, pack rafting and trekking, 79.8 kilometers AFEC competitors changed into biking clothes and grabbed equipment for trekking and pack-rafting. They then went down the Delta River and walked through thick brush. Next, the teams inflated individual pack rafts, went into water and trekked west to Octopus Lake. Ultimately, the teams crossed back over the Delta River and ended up under Donnelly Dome. Through much of the route trekkers had to navigate through an environment filled with mosquito-laden bogs and steep, alder-covered slopes.

Leg 4: Mountain biking, 45 kilometers: Competitors rode along Alaskas oil pipeline and north along Richardson Highway into Delta Junction.

Leg 5: River rafting, 18 kilometers Each group rode in four-man, 14-foot rafts. They started where Jarvis Creek flows into the Delta River. Teams rafted down a wide, braided river that offers many channels to choose from, many of which dead-ended.

Leg 6: Trekking, 6.6 kilometers The final leg of the course took competitors from the confluence of the Tanana and Delta rivers to the Quartz Lake recreation area. In between the racers hiked over Bert Mountain, navigating through thick brush and across the tundra to the finish line.