Friday, September 21, 2012

Cross-Country Bike Trip a Testament to Energy Conservation

Stephen Kosacz on the shore of Lake Superior, Marquette, Wisconsin (courtesy photo)

The idea to bicycle across the United States started in May 2011 at Ceres Bakery in Portsmouth when Peter Billipp of Eliot ran into Stephen Kosacz of Cape Neddick.
Billipp, a commercial real estate broker at Kane Company, and Kosacz, owner of Autoworks in Kittery and vice chairman of the Seacoast Energy Initiative, have known each other, off and on, for thirty years. But a coast-to-coast trip, covering more than 3,600 miles, was something they had never imagined before.
While both may be considered senior citizens (Kosacz is 63 and Billipp is 59), they had been keeping in shape all their lives. Billipp is an avid hiker, bicyclist, and Nordic skier of the White Mountains while Kosacz races Lasers, an Olympic class single handed dinghy, cycles, works out at the gym, and cross country ski raced with Peter decades ago.
“For me, the toughest part was the mental aspect” said Kosacz. “Preparation, online research of what to leave behind, wondering if we could climb all those snow covered peaks in the Cascades right at the beginning of the trip, and then a few days later get over the Continental Divide in the Rockies at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park produced a fair amount of anxiety.”
The epic journey is a great example of what Kosacz espouses though his work with the Seacoast Energy Initiative, and is a living testament to energy conservation.
SEI works with residents in Kittery, Eliot, York, South Berwick, North Berwick and Ogunquit to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.
“We worked with Efficiency Maine to reduce energy consumption of residential homes through a revolving loan program they set up,” Kosacz said. “If people pay down the loans to weatherize their homes, those funds became available to other homeowners.”
The group set up a half million dollar revolving loan fund. Homeowners could borrow up to $10,000 with zero percent interest if they paid the loan off in three years, and if loan went to improvements. The idea for SEI came to him during another journey.
“I was inspired while on a trip to New Zealand in winter of 2009,” he said. “I was amazed by what other countries were doing to reduce energy consumption.”
The bike trip with Billipp called upon all of their energy reserves, as they traveled through five mountain passes as high as 5,600 feet in the first week. Fifty-seven days later, they pedaled back to Maine.
“I like to do physically demanding trips,” Kosacz said. “I’m not a cruise type of person”
The trip began on July 5 when the two flew to Seattle, took a bus up to Anacortes in the San Juan Islands, and the following morning started pedaling home.
They had shipped their bicycles ahead of time and picked them up from the bike shop on the morning of July 6, loaded them with their panniers filled with spare tires, tubes, camping and sleeping gear, clothing, food, and headed out to the Cascades. They biked all but two days, on which they rested, they were welcomed by friends and family on August 31 as they road into the Atlantic Ocean at York Harbor Beach.
“Once we had the mountains behind us, we gained confidence,” they said.
“For me the most spectacular part was Logan Pass on the Road to the Sun where the highway had been cleared of a rock and mud slide the night before.  As we wound our way up we could see clouds, backlit by the sun, cascading over the ridges.  At the summit I hiked in the snowfields to see mountain goats with the kids,” Kosacz said. “Until you witness it firsthand it is hard to comprehend how much moves by rail in this country: freight trains are carrying containers filled with goods from the Far East, coal from Montana, grain from the Midwest.”
It seemed to take forever to cross eastern Montana and North Dakota where every day was basically a grind as they rode through hundreds of miles of corn, wheat, soybean, or hay fields in the scorching record heat.  With temperatures in the high 90s and low 100s, the water bottles were quickly emptied but the evaporation that comes from riding at 15 – 20 miles per hour cooled them off.
“We were relieved to get to Minnesota where it was green again from the thousands of ponds and lakes,” they said. “ After crossing Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Duluth is a great city to visit with all of its activity of grain, coal, and iron ore being transferred to boats to cross the Great Lakes), we entered Ontario Canada at Sault Ste Marie re-entering the US at Niagara Falls.”
Returning to New England brought familiar sights and welcome relief from the heat and western mountains.
“Aside from the last 100 feet of our journey, the happiest day for me was descending the Adirondacks into Ticonderoga NY, seeing the Green Mountains of Vermont, crossing the lower end of Lake Champlain on a cable barge, and making our lunch on the village green of Orwell, Vermont.  After the mountains of the West we knew could go over anything.”
In addition to many memorable scenic vistas, they saw some less attractive sights as well.
“It’s sad to see some towns pretty empty. Imagine a town the size of South Berwick but less prosperous. On Indian land, we spoke with people who said gambling had sucked the lifeblood out this town,” Kosacz said.
“The most dangerous part of the trip was riding on the Trans-Canada highway across Ontario – a two-lane highway with no paved shoulders.  We cringed every time a tractor trailer or giant RV passed us in the rain wondering if this was ‘it,’” said Kosacz, who talked with Canadians about their health care system, marveled at the wind turbine blades being transported from factories in South Dakota heading to Montana, Oregon, and Canada, and was impressed by an electrician they met in a public campground in Shelby Montana. “He was wiring the wind turbine generators but was terrified of heights. He said  ‘I’m 300 feet up inside the tower, I don’t dare look down, I just focus completely on what’s directly in front of me.’”
What’s directly in front of Kosacz and Billipp now? Miles of memories, lots of time to rest and recover, and plans for the next trip.