Top 11 finalist for the 2021 “Lael Rides Alaska” Femme-Trans-Women’s Scholarship: Part 01

Top 11 finalists for the “Lael Rides Alaska” 2021 Femme-Trans-Women’s Scholarship

Design a 1,000 mile Alaska bike adventure, tell me about your plan and yourself and how you’ll make it happen this summer.

With the help of Cari Carmean, Natsuko Hirose, Kailey Kornhauser, and Abigale Wilson, we’ve selected 11 finalists from the 126 applicants. It has been extremely encouraging to read about women from around the world that want to take on this challenge and have so many unique approaches. I am honored to share a few of their stories. This has been a hard year for everyone. While highlighting positivity, there’s always an undercurrent of endurance and reflection. These are bold stories of perseverance, of finding connection, learning about ourselves and what truly matters.

I’m thrilled to share that we have the capacity to give out two full scholarships this year to outfit two different adventures this summer. Thank you so much to our generous and thoughtful sponsors.

The winners will receive either a complete Specialized Diverge with Easton carbon wheels or an adventure bike built up by SRAM, Revelate Designs bikepacking bags, Big Agnes camping equipment, PEARL iZUMi apparel, a premium subscription to Komoot, a Wahoo ELEMNT ROAM GPS, a $300 gift card for Competitive Cyclist, Rene Herse tires, an Ergon saddle, a year subscription to Bicycle Quarterly, Trail Butter, Hydro Flask hydration, and a $1,500 travel stipend provided by Easton, and the Radavist will also kick in a $500 travel stipend for one of the finalists.

Now’s the really hard part– we have to choose two winners. Announcements to come later this week.

Read on below for the first of three posts showcasing the 11 finalists…

Dorothy O’Donnell
Age: 26
Hometown: Lower Tanana Dené lands (Fairbanks, AK)

Paġlagivsi! My name is Dorothy O’Donnell. I am 26 tree rings old, sprouted and matured in the boreal forests of Lower Tanana Dené lands (Fairbanks, AK). Heads up, this is a sappy story of my journey from a displaced seed to a grounded adult, and how biking partnered with kindness has been my vehicle to adapt and connect with the land as I learn how to reestablish my Indigenous roots.

The will of the wind determines where we reside. Members of the 229 tribes among 11 distinct cultures in Alaska inhabit varied and versatile biomes throughout our state. My Iñupiat ancestors along the banks of the Koyuk River may not have forests, but I have developed a deep affection for trees while growing up on Athabascan lands. From the moment I first crashed into a birch after taking off my training wheels, I soared like the pollen I knocked from its catkins. My mother’s love was the warmth of the sun which ensured that wherever I settled down, I would have the energy to thrive. As a young seedling in the “golden heart city”, I spent the summers biking every day under the midnight sun, and the winters in school, absorbing the teachings of devoted instructors. The knowledgeable nutrients of education provided the fertile soil for my future enthusiasm in flora. As a spindly sapling though, I started to notice something essential was missing: there was a cultural drought throughout many parts of our state. Colonization stripped the protective bark of our people. Therefore, many generations were left susceptible to the abhorrent disease of assimilation, which plagued the heartwood of both elders and youth throughout many communities. I may be going out on a limb when I say that, among many repercussions, acclimatizing attempts imposed a perceived shame of being Native and the accompanying guilt from denying cultural ties. I witnessed lamentable throes among thickets of willows searching for solace while coping with being treated like weeds on their ancestors’ homeland. For many moons, I recognized this phase of autumnal melancholy, but felt forlorn for those overshadowed by the canopy of cultural tribulations.

This cycle affected my notion of what it meant to be a Native woman until I met a dear friend’s hearty family, who beaded, sewed, and always had a variety of goods gathered from the land to share; they embodied the wise and generous vitality of Alaska Native cultures. The rivers of Indigenous livelihood they retained inspired a burgeoning pride in my Iñupiaq heritage. Over the years they also poured over my academic, professional and extracurricular endeavors. I started to commute by bike in high school, reveling in the freedom this newfound mobility provided; I could leaf at will and pursue my own growing conditions with a sense of resilience. A coach recognized my commitment to this form of transportation and gifted a bike to replace my rusty one, cutting my hour ride time in half. I continued cycling while studying biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, roaming the woods between my cabin, class and running practice all four years, even at forty below. After graduating, I conducted botany diversity and forest health surveys across the state, learning about the hardy northern species present throughout the tundra and taiga with a blooming confidence. My friend’s family always checked in about school and biking, as well as encouraging my botanical interests, which deepened my appreciation for

the Indigenous stewards who have respected the land and have recognized the food and medicinal uses of plants for time immemorial. Their fortitude provided the final piece in the ecological web of support for my budding shoots: maternal care from the sun, educational nutrients from teachers, and the cultural water of wholesome traditions to sip through my xylem.

Qanusimik nigiliuqpita? While the snow sparkles this winter, I will reach out to traditional gatherers for guidance in learning how to acquire not-so-long forgotten nourishment. When the buds start emerging this spring, I will implement their teachings of where to look, what to collect, how to preserve and why respect is fundamental throughout the process. While the flowers blossom this summer, I will continue harvesting enough subsistence food to fulfil the majority of my diet for the duration of the trip. I aim to include dried caribou and salmon strips, dehydrated and fermented meals of gathered greens and fungi, and berry baked goods. When the hills burst with beauty this fall, I will embark on the cycle to communities around the state to deliver a portion of the harvested bounty as a token of my gratitude to those who shared their plant knowledge. I would bike throughout August, averaging 40 miles a day, which is similar to previous tours I have joined while renting a bike with my partner’s family. I plan on video chatting with loved ones when I camp within cell reception, utilizing the time while traversing to reflect on generational healing. Mostly I will ride solo, but friends may tag along if I am passing through their neck of the woods. At all times, I will maintain COVID safe practices, remaining conscious of the impact this pandemic imposes on traditional knowledge-bearing elders in communities that have historically been devastated by introduced diseases.

After the ride, I intend to commence my master’s degree in Arctic and Northern Studies, concentrating on the ethnobotany of Alaskan cultures. The themes in my academic pursuits and this ride are symbiotic in my dedication to taking part in revitalizing traditional ecological knowledge as a means of improving community mental, physical and spiritual health. I would like to present this experience to grade school students, sharing the collected bouquet of sun, nutrients and water to empower Indigenous girls to flourish. I look forward to the opportunity this scholarship could provide in nurturing my evolving identity as a modern Iñupiaq woman.


Tiffany St. Bunny & Kika Thalen
Age: 38 & 35
Hometown: Stillwater, OK & Gig Harbor, WA

So from 2005 to about 2014 I worked as an adventure guide and instructor for various orgs and outfitters. I was passionate about it, I believed in it, and I was honored to be able to be there when people had profound, life-changing experiences in the world’s most beautiful places. Like what’s not to love about being paid to travel extensively all while sharing your passions with people that were stoked to learn about them?

The one thing that was hard about that industry and community, however, was how much of a bro-zone it was. Most days it felt like a boys club that you had to be granted access to. Like unless you were a straight white man, you couldn’t just enter it on your own accord and expect to be welcomed. In 2008 I came out as non-binary, and I’m pretty sure most people in my home-state of Oklahoma just didn’t understand what that even meant. I think they just figured I was an artsy weirdo or that I was in a band or something, lol. Things stayed pretty much ok for a while, like it was bigtime high school class clown flashback vibes but nothing too egregious. Then, in 2012 I ended up medically transitioning and shit honestly hit the fan.

Not to get into too much detail, but I suddenly felt iced out of the adventure community and it was crushing. Pronouns and names were “too hard” for people. One of my managers stopped assigning me to trips because “He didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.” Even when people had good intentions, they would ask really insane and invasive questions that they’d never ask a cis person. Outside of work, I was forced to race in the men’s category of my local mtb series even though I had been on hormones for like a year. Traveling for big adventures became so much more stressful and scary. Like it’s hard to overstate just how quickly things went south.

In the end, the joy and wonder of that profession/community were replaced by stress and fear, and it was no longer worth it for me to try to endure the pain just to stay involved, so I stopped going on trips. I stopped hitting the trails. I stopped racing. It felt like something inside of me had died, and I became bitter and cynical.

Luckily that didn’t last long because one thing I’ve never been good at is sitting on my ass feeling sorry for myself! In 2015 I started Trucksluts Magazine, which is a project that celebrates queer and trans rural/working class culture. It got pretty big, and I became a pretty decent photographer in the process (I ended up in Paper Mag, Artforum, and even on a billboard in LA

In 2016, some friends and I started a nonprofit called Trans Assistance Project, and we eventually merged and then took over operations of Trans Lifeline. I’m still there, as Director of Operations, and I’m immensely proud of the work we’ve done to lift up and support the trans community.


However, through all that, my life was still missing the thing that brings me the most joy: Doing wildass adventure shit with your buds! So in 2018 I started getting back out there. I backpacked a week in the Grand Canyon, and then I flew to Alaska with my friend Carrot to attempt a human powered traverse of the Brooks Range. Later, I went on backpacking trips to Big Sur and the Sierras and Arizona, all of them totally rad trips. BUT, the thing I missed the most was BIKE TOURING! There’s nothing else like it, and I think about the tours I did in ‘09 and ‘12 like at least once a day. It’s way past time for me to get back in the saddle.

In all seriousness though, my hope for this trip is that the semi-public nature of it could inspire other queer and trans people to get out there and go on some adventures! It’s a hard community to break into for so many reasons, but I think gender and sexuality are some of those barriers that can be tossed in the dumpster ASAP, and I wanna help!

I am lucky to have grown up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest where my family consistently camped, hiked, swam in rivers, climbed trees and rode bikes. Becoming a competitive gymnast by age 10 was a great way for me to get my hyperactive energy out, as well as combine my athletic strength with my love of music and movement. I moved from gymnastics to dance, theatre and springboard diving in high school. I always had A LOT of energy…

I moved back into the city, but luckily after that I met Bunny :) Our relationship has been tons of hot springing, bikepacking, rock scrambling, off roading, river swimming, camping and exploring abandoned mines just to name a few things. Bunny introduced me to NEXT LEVEL ADVENTURE, and to be able to do that with someone you are in love with is so, so special. We’ve explored some really beautiful places together and we have been to Alaska independently of each other, so the thought of bike packing with my love through Alaska is very exciting!!!

Zoraya Hightower
Age: 30
Hometown: Burlington, Vermont

After five years in my current job working around the globe in international development and one year in city politics as a Progressive (left of Democrats) City Councilor, and of course a pandemic, I feel like I am in a fog with weekly emergencies and an unrelenting fight for environmental and economic justice. This summer, I am looking forward to some time off between jobs to get grounded and remember what exactly it is that I am fighting for. I will be riding with my amazing friend, not the only (but certainly my favorite), Deborah Kraft! Deb is my ever-biking, dumpster-diving, bike-mechanic friend, and I am so grateful that we get to do a trip this summer.

Biking is my transit of choice because you get to really interact with your surroundings and the surrounding landscape every hour of every day, but you also get to go the distance. Biking is a sustainable and freeing way to travel regardless of if you are getting groceries, doing a weekend ride, or planning a long trip like this one!
At eleven years old I moved with my parents from suburban Germany to rural Oklahoma. It was 2001. A month later, I was trying to adjust to a new language and culture when school was interrupted. We spent the rest of the day watching two skyscrapers tumble to the ground. I had spent the last month fielding questions from curious classmates asking me if Germany had electricity, if it had cars. I was confused – mentally comparing: the calm order of Germany with these two crumbling towers; the two times we had already lost power in an Oklahoma thunderstorm to my German homes; the shiny VWs and BMWs with the rusty pickups around town. This confusion was my first lesson in American exceptionalism.

The name, “Oklahoma” is derived from the Choctaw language; “okla” for people, and “humma” for red. Officially, I have no right to feel kinship to this portion of my ancestry. Like most tribes, the two nations of my great (and great great) grandparents did not recognize a majority of their black members for decades. Even unofficially, my brown skin and curly black hair place me in the “African American” category despite my black-Indian grandparents and my blond-haired blue-eyed mother.

Throughout my six years of post-secondary schooling, people would ask me why I studied environmentalism. If I wanted to impress them, I spun a long do-gooder tale of altruism and speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves. For peers, I jokingly pointed to every American girl’s early induction into the environmental cult. Which Disney princess wasn’t loved by fauna and flora alike? I wanted to be a Disney princess. But if I really search within myself, at best, I can pull out a string of coincidences. Turns out, I am an environmentalist as much by accident as by choice.

I had always loved nature. In Germany – though it was certainly not wild, but sustainable and magical to me in its orderliness. I was also gripped by the landscapes of Oklahoma. The stark cycles of death and life; drought or flash floods; bursts of spring and venomous snakes. Other than our traverse across the Atlantic, my family had never had much excess income and trips abroad seemed extravagant. When I went to Yale for graduate school, the world opened up to me. I went to Mexico for spring break taking busses across Chiapas. I did a study-tour to Rwanda for a class, followed by a summer internship. I was surprised to also be touched at my first sight of an elephant wandering across the safari, so different from the depressing Zoo shuffle. When I returned to Europe after Rwanda I through-hiked from Geneva to central France – I had caught the travel bug.

It was in Rwanda that I decided I could work in international development. Before, I didn’t think I had the right; I was from Germany and the US – two of the richest countries in the world. Now I am looking back on a five-year career which unsurprisingly has involved a lot of arguments with neocolonialist who are foreign to the lands we are trying to protect but don’t find it necessary to do the hard work that had been drilled into me in grad school – ask the local community, and the whole community, not just the powerful.

I found a similar story in my own country, state, and city. In March, Burlington Vermont elected their first woman of color to the city council. The issues I focused on while campaigning were race-adjacent, housing, environmental justice, and policing – but I was not a race-forward candidate. In Vermont, I didn’t think you could be. But I had no idea how much it would end up mattering that I was on council for this moment in time. It puts me in mind of the John Lewis quote, “we may have not chosen the time, but the time chose us.” Because if I had known what the times were going to be, I may not have run.

Last year felt like the end of a chapter. I came out of my 20s and into my 30s. I have cried more in the last year than I care to admit, but I’ve also found moments of joy that mean all the more for how hard this year has been. I am ready to ground myself again inland and find inspiration in landscapes.

Tara Mills
Age: 43
Hometown: Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

I’m not sure how I stumbled upon this scholarship, but I’m over the moon that I did. My whole body said, “YOU HAVE TO DO THIS.”

I have been riding seriously since the spring of 2019 but didn’t have the freedom to dream big until I started speaking up and getting help. I’m a survivor of eighteen years of intimate partner violence. March 4, 2020 is the day I walked into a police station and asked for help. I cried intermittently while I waited for officers, terrified of the punishment I would face, knowing there would be consequences. I did it anyway, and there were consequences, but I persisted. Funny thing is my world got bigger during COVID just as it was closing in and shutting down for most of the world.

In the summer of 2020, I only felt safe to ride a loop around the circumference of a giant industrial park that also housed the city’s police station. I did that loop over and over again all spring and summer. I felt safe to be on a busy road and close to the station I’d walked into earlier that year to try and get safe. I still ride there on tough days.

I’m applying for this scholarship because I want other women to know there is an after to intimate partner violence. I didn’t think I’d ever get out, and I’m still not all the way there, but I’m on my way. Recovery is going to take a long time. Riding has been the one steady thing through all of this that has kept me going. When I ride, I remember who I am. It’s like riding taps into the me before the violence, the me who bought shitty bikes from big box stores and rode up and down all the rural roads outside of town, feeling free and fast on summer nights as the sun went down. It remembers the me who secretly blew money saved for textbooks on a high end (for me), bright yellow Gary Fisher Marlin the day before taking the train 1800kms to a university and town I’d never seen on the East Coast. I’d never been past Montreal, and here I was going to the easternmost edge of the continent. I rode that bike all over the dykes and marshes of New Brunswick. I rode that bike until I met the man who slowly took everything from me, including the Marlin.

I want to make what’s left of this life big and outspoken and full of love. I have so much gratitude for every person who helps my family, especially first responders. All the pain of the past makes life that much more tender today. I have a body that is only mine now- we call the shots- and that body is helping rewire my brain every time I get out and spin the wheels. Riding my bike is how I’m healing. I used to track the days as no hands on me without consent- 7, 10, then back to zero again. I never thought I’d get to thirty days but I don’t even have to keep track anymore. No hands on me without consent. It feels powerful to write that with confidence.

In my wildest dreams, I imagine riding this route and other people joining me along the way- women and children, police officers, paramedics. All the people who are affected by a system that isn’t working and keep trying in spite of it. Two police officers saved my life, but many others had a hand in getting me to where I am today.

I want a simple life: safety, autonomy, and the right to choose my own direction. I have three amazing kids, and I want them to see their mom come to life. I want them to see me recover so they know we are all going to be okay. The pattern of violence breaks here. My daughter believes she can do anything. If she holds onto that, we’ve won. Books, bikes, my babies. That’s what matters to me.

3am thought (my best thinking time): I forgot to add that if borders stay closed (but I’m an eternal optimist, so they’ll open), I will do the ride from here in Halifax home to my mom, also a survivor. It’s exactly 1000 miles to her. We haven’t seen each other since pre-COVID. She’s in the end stages of Pulmonary Hypertension and can’t travel. I would love, as a consolation to Alaska, having her at the finish line.


We’d like to thank everyone for their submissions and to the companies supporting this endeavor. To gain perspective on what riding in Alaska is like, check out the Related section below. Thanks to Rue for providing some inspirational imagery in this gallery.