• Mark Junge catches his breath amid views that take your breath away
By Sean Pearson
Ten years ago, Mark Junge developed what he thought was the flu. When antibiotics and steroids didn’t improve his shortness of breath and other symptoms, he visited a pulmonologist. There, he was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and diminished lung capacity.
“I pretty much figured my life was over,” the 69-year-old adventurer, cyclist and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease awareness advocate said of his diagnosis. “You feel like you are constantly tethered to a 10-foot plastic tube.”
COPD refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. According to the National Institutes of Health, COPD is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, impacting more than 12 million people. There is no cure for it, but it can be managed with positive-pressure oxygen.
“When my doctor told me about a portable system, it literally saved my life,” Junge said, referring to the Philips Respironics portable oxygen system he currently has strapped to the back of his bicycle.
He decided to take the unit — which runs on batteries — out for a long test drive across Alaska.
But not all at once.
On Tuesday morning, Junge launched the first segment of what he estimates to be a 10-day ride from the Salty Dawg Saloon on the Spit, to the city of Anchorage. Homer Mayor Jim Hornaday gave Junge a special send-off for his 225-mile journey.
The two men had quite a bit in common, as Junge was not only a historian for the State of Wyoming, he’s a big Monmouth College fan.
Since 2004, Junge has logged some 8,500 miles — or one-third of the earth’s circumference — on his bicycle. He rides to raise awareness for COPD and “strike a blow for freedom” for people suffering from the disease.
“This was just something on my bucket list, and I made up my mind to do it,” Junge explained. “There are a lot of people out there in recliners, punching their remote in front of a TV. They need to know they can do things. The handicap doesn’t mean you can’t live out your dreams.”
Junge is encouraging oxygen-dependent people to remain as active as possible, and ultimately plans to bike the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States and Canada.
His wife of 46 years, Ardath, coordinates his journeys and accompanies him following alongside in a pickup with a camper shell as a support vehicle.
“Without Ardath, I couldn’t do any of this,” Junge said. “She does everything but ride the bicycle.”
The couple has two sons. Andy teaches art in Oakland, while Daniel is an Oscar-winning filmmaker responsible for the movie “Saving Face.”
The portable oxygen system runs about $4,000, and has not yet been approved for airlines. However, it can be plugged into either a 110 outlet or car lighter to recharge. There are no tanks to change out, as the system produces the oxygen itself, and Junge said the company also offers a system that uses liquid oxygen.
As Junge tests the SimplyGo portable oxygen concentrator on his bike, he said he couldn’t ride without the oxygen, and finds Medicare barriers to obtaining a portable system quite frustrating.
“The problem with Medicare at this point is that they don’t encourage people with breathing problems to live productive lives,” Junge said. “They warehouse people and tell them to just stay home and die.”
And while he acknowledged that the system is expensive, he pointed out that it’s “the kind of equipment that gives you your life back.”
In his handy pack on the front handlebars of his bike, Junge carries his camera and a trusty can of bear spray. He also brings along a good supply of replacement batteries for the oxygen unit.
Junge uses Kevlar-lined tires, and said he has had maybe three flats in his eight years of riding. He has been injured while biking, but only on bike trails and never on the road.
Ardath said this still isn’t much comfort for her.
“I worry about him all the time,” she said. “But I won’t quit encouraging him.”
Luckily, Junge is a firm believer in wearing a helmet, and credits the protective gear for saving his life on more than one occasion.
Junge said he hoped to make it to Anchor Point by the end of Tuesday, and maybe dip a tire in the water off the beach; just to say he’s been to the westernmost point of the U.S. road system.
“I dipped my tire in the water off the Florida Keys,” he explained. “It only seems appropriate to do the same here.”
Follow Mark at: www.gosimplygo.com/FollowMark
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