True North Strong and Free
“When a pine needle falls in the forest, the eagle sees it; the deer hears it, and the bear smells it.” – First Nations proverb
I was a willful child. My mother and older sisters delight in telling a story from my infancy, in which I escaped from the backyard by dragging aside the heavy dustbins placed as a barricade across the gateway. As a toddler, anything that stood between me and freedom was toast. I kept pushing at boundaries throughout childhood, and acquired grudging respect for the laws of physics, surviving a broken arm and leg, countless concussions and minor electrocution. By age eleven I had outgrown the backstreets where I cycled laps from morning to night. Fed a steady diet of rice pudding and adventure stories, I champed at the bit to roam further afield. Somehow I inveigled my mother to countersign my youth hostel membership with my date of birth nudged back a year, because you had to be twelve to stay as an unaccompanied minor. I loaded up my little Peugeot drop-handlebar bike and dragged along my reluctant older brother through the mill towns of East Lancashire, over the moors into Brontë country, West Yorkshire – all to the strains of Dvorak’s New World Symphony arranged for brass, no doubt. The following year I devised a ten-day tour of the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District for myself and two best friends. A year later we did it again and brought along three schoolmates.
Those were extraordinary freedoms, even for my pre-internet cohort of tree-climbing, knee-scraping latchkey kids. But I emerged from a chaotic adolescence craving stability and belonging. I married my university sweetheart at twenty-four. A respectable job, a car, a house and a mortgage soon followed. For five years I knuckled down as a corporate recruitment consultant, but I was a fish out of water in the business world. I talked my way onto a masters program and retrained as an environmental protection officer. Life in local government didn’t push my buttons either, so I halved my income for the second time in three years by starting a PhD, which segued into postdoctoral research on energy and climate change. For weeks at a time I disappeared inside the matrix of a computer model, until I could see spreadsheet cells behind my eyelids, like the after image of staring at the sun. Although surrounded by a wonderful team, I was not flourishing as an academic. A series of professional setbacks dealt body-blows to my confidence. Family, home and work pressures fomented a perfect shitstorm, and my eight-year relationship imploded. Panic attacks blindsided me. Social interactions provoked choking anxiety.
Somewhere along the line, between age twelve and thirty-eight, things had gone awry. I took a long, difficult look at my life. I saw myself withdrawing, building mental defences, holding the world at a distance. Both of my brothers are now recluses, delusional and dependent. Was I heading the same way? Weren’t we made of the same stuff, after all? Maybe I was just stalling … pointlessly padding my life with the trappings of career, qualifications and property. I peered into the abyss and the abyss gazed back. In a single lucid moment I realised that playing safe, defending and conserving was exactly the wrong approach. To live by my own lights I had to do the opposite: step out of my comfort zone and embrace the unknown. I needed to put myself out into the world and be a part of it, not recoil in a misguided attempt to protect myself. In short, I needed to reconnect with my eleven-year old self. A world trip had been in the back of my mind for years, but I had archived the idea for another time … another lifetime probably. I would never be in a better position to make it happen. Next morning I called my friends and told them what I meant to do. That was August 2014. I never looked back.
Four years later, almost to the day (five years at the time I’m sharing this story – I’m in Mexico now), I found myself on my bicycle, on the frontier between Alaska and Canada on the Top of the World Highway. To get there, I had cycled across three continents, now on my fourth. On the way I had met hundreds of people who I now counted as friends, and thousands more who helped me in small ways. I had ridden across scorching deserts and over Himalayan mountain passes, through steaming jungles and some of the biggest cities in the world. I had survived wild dogs, giardia, altitude sickness and a year in a South Korean kindergarten. I fought the law in China and Burma (and I won). And I had just cycled through Alaska, where I had seen grizzly bears in the wild. I had felt the fear, and I had done it anyway. Eleven-year-old me would be proper proud.
For all the derring-do, I’ve also learned a few things about derring-don’t. Specifically, don’t start what you can’t finish. We might as well get this out of the way: I seem to keep falling for Canadian women. And while there are certainly worse proclivities, this one has proved something of a liability as I attempt to cycle solo round the world. I’d got to this point without having snagged a Canadian passport, but it’s a long, lonely ride across the second biggest country in the world. Who could tell what might happen once I was on Canadian soil? Fortunately, I was on a mission to meet a friend at the other end of the country in six weeks time. There would be no time to dilly-dally on the way. To further mitigate the jeopardy, I would spend most of my time in the circumboreal green belt, inhabited largely by bears, wolves and other beasts of the forest. On the whole run there were only two towns bigger than 25,000 people. With a bit of luck, I’d keep my powder dry and stay out of trouble.
I bungled the border crossing. I could blame it on the distracting presence of Bikepacker Bill, another cyclist I’d bumped into a few times who accompanied me through immigration. We were always at cross-purposes, he and I. Talking to him reminded me of Shaw’s advice, ‘never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it’. But really I just let my eye off the ball, and before I knew it I had crossed the invisible line into Canada without checking out on the US side first. It’s not a requirement, but it would complicate things on subsequent re-entry to the Lower 48 if I couldn’t prove that I hadn’t overstayed. To make matters worse, I failed to get the Canadian officer to stamp my passport because I was running low on pages, and glad to find that Canadian immigration is recorded electronically.
By the time I realised my error, it was too late to do anything about it through official channels. I filmed myself with the border and the date in shot, and made a point of using my credit card at the first opportunity to create a record of leaving the USA. I soon dropped Bill – our riding was as out of step as our conversation. He caught up when I stopped for lunch at the roadside, although he didn’t spot me until I shouted to offer him a cup of tea from my stove. At last we found common ground over a proper British cuppa and parted on good terms.
The Top of the World Highway is a grand-sounding epithet for what is essentially a minor tourist road, being neither a highway nor anything like the most northerly such road. After a steep climb on the Alaska side, it follows a high ridge line, rolling proud above the drainages of northern Yukon Territory. I had been warned I’d have to carry enough water for the whole two-day run along the TOTW highway. I’d decided to chance it, feeling sure I could scrounge a few litres from tourists or at the border. Luck was on my side. As my energy levels dwindled with the last of the evening sun, a car stopped and the driver offered me half a gourmet pizza, topped with olives and artichokes. Soon afterwards I found a family ‘camping’ in an RV the size of a cruise boat. Once I explained my trip, the Canadian family happily filled all my bottles from their own supplies.
In the morning, I scooted off the ridge straight to the front of a line of cars waiting to be ferried over the Yukon River. Across the icy grey waters, turbid with glacial till, was the one time gold rush capital of the Yukon, Dawson City. I felt like I had entered a film set, if that film was Blazing Saddles. The main street of Dawson City recalls the scene where Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder build a fake Western town, the building frontages just propped up by wooden struts behind. The reconstructed facades of Dawson City’s assorted saloons, guesthouses and shops looked to be just that, but fortunately there was an actual store behind the one made up like an old time trading post. The town swarmed with bus-loads and boat-loads of tourists. I chatted with a couple of wheat farmers from Michigan as I brewed up and had a picnic lunch on the banks of the river. Our neighbours on all sides were drinking and smoking parties of local youngsters, a sprawl of cargo pants, dreadlocks and beanies. Canadians’ legendary fondness for a tuque (as a knitted beanie is called in these parts) was everywhere in evidence. You know you’re in Canada when folk dress for winter in summer.
Out of Dawson City the Klondike Highway snakes alongside the champagne waters of its namesake river. Wildcamping prospects looked great, but as so often happens, when I started looking in earnest conditions had deteriorated. The road was being resurfaced; for the next 20km it was sand and gravel. Few drivers respected the reduced speed limit on the arrow-straight road. Most powered through at 100km an hour, raising great clouds of dust. Once engulfed in the dust, I was all but invisible on the bike. I was on edge whenever I heard the approach of a vehicle from behind. The surrounding forest was chalky white from billowing dust; not attractive to camp. I came upon a solitary dwelling, an impressive octagonal house on the edge of the forest. An old gent in a florid shirt let me fill my water bottles, and we talked through the open door while he fried his dinner. I commented that his labrador had been calm even as I approached on my bicycle. The dog is only interested in bears, he said. If one came within 100 yards of the house, it would raise hell. But it’s been a quiet year for bears. Normally the grizzlies pass by all summer making their rounds, but this year barely a sniff. I asked how far the road was in this messy condition. On and off, all the way to Whitehorse, he replied, to my dismay.
At Stewart Crossing I chatted with campervan tourists as they paraded past my picnic table to the visitor centre. A French couple who had cycle toured back home were wide-eyed with enthusiasm about my trip, the woman bestowing a warm hug on me to show their support. A scouring headwind had blown up from the south, making the miles drag and my ears ring with the constant white noise of the air rushing past. A summer storm was imminent. I grabbed water and supplies in Pelly Crossing and put in at a lakeside clearing as night fell and the clouds burst. By morning the rainstorm was still in full force. With easy access to drinking water, I took a rest day in the tent; the third tent-day of my whole four and a half year trip.
Here’s a popular trivia question: are there more stars in the Milky Way or trees on Earth? People usually say ‘stars’. That is a big number, for sure, estimated around 400 billion. But the correct answer will surprise no one who has ridden through Southern Alaska or Northern Canada. Current best estimates put the global total of trees around three trillion, and I feel like I got personally acquainted with a good proportion of them in Canada. Elsewhere known as taiga, the boreal forest is an almost continuous, subarctic girdle of trees around the planet. The world’s largest land biome, it covers most of Canada. I came to fully appreciate the comment by the Russian cyclist I met in Alaska: “So. Many. Trees.” Camping on the edge of the forest was idyllic, but I was under no illusions. A few paces into the ocean of spruce, pine and birch and the disorientation would easily swallow a person without a trace.
I hoped to catch up in Whitehorse with my companions from the Dalton Highway ride, Adam and Julie. I put in a long shift to pull back the lost day in the tent. North of Whitehorse I passed grazing and crop fields for the first time in North America. The high cost and scant phone network coverage in the northern provinces made communications tricky in Canada. I found wifi outside the hotel in Carmacks and messaged potential hosts, picking up a reply in McDonald’s when I hit town. Hosts Richard and Tammy and their neighbours received me like an honoured guest. They generously gave me several days off the bike to catch up on my backlog of video editing, and catch up with Adam, who was staying with Jen and Charles, Warmshowers hosts a few doors away.
The clock was ticking as I departed Whitehorse. My friend, Steve, had booked his flight from the UK to meet me in Banff in three weeks. I made fast miles on the Alaska-Canada Highway, then had to choose either the direct continuation to Dawson Creek, or the more remote and hilly Stewart-Cassiar highway. I camped near the junction and left the decision until breakfast. I plumped for the Cassiar, but within a few hours I was kicking myself. It traverses deep, steep drainages, and the smooth surface became granular chippings, frustrating the fast pace I’d grown accustomed to on the Alcan. Just as I was about to spit my dummy out, I glided onto a newly laid section of the smoothest asphalt in the world and the views opened up.
South of Dease Lake, a sign marked where the road crossed the Continental Divide, the principal watershed of North America. The road twisted and bucked through deep river and lake valleys of the Cassiar Mountains, foothills of the sinuous cordillera of the Rockies, their flanks swathed in endless spruce and pine plantations. As I edged closer to the ragged coastline of BC, the forest grew dense and dank; mosses carpeted the uneven floor of decaying fallen trees. Finding a niche to place a tent required imagination. Author John Vaillant captures the scene: “The atmosphere in an old-growth coastal rainforest borders on the amniotic; still and close, sound moves differently in here, and the air moves hardly at all”.
Where forest enclosed the road, black bear sightings were frequent as they foraged for berries and roots in the undergrowth on the fringes. Usually the motion of the bicycle startled them and they disappeared into the trees at astonishing speed for such hulking beasts. When occasionally I intercepted bears crossing the road, I slowed down and nervously fingered my bear spray in its holster. But without fail, every black bear vamosed as soon as it sensed me, until I was no more concerned by them than a stray dog. Less concerned perhaps, since bears showed no inclination to bark or give chase. After several days of these encounters, an approaching campervan stopped suddenly and the driver jumped out. ‘You need to watch out and be careful’, she cautioned me with both eyebrows raised high, enunciating the words slowly as if addressing a child. ‘I just saw a bear on this road’.
I pedalled through Meziadin Junction into dusk. Mournful howls sent a thrill up my spine – wolves ghosted through the woods all along the Cassiar. I tried four or five possible camping spots, all rejected for being too close to the road, lacking flat ground or being too swampy. Well after dark I found a clearing in mossy woodland accessed from a muddy logging road. Perfect, except for the amount of bear scat on the ground. I admit I had grown complacent of late, just placing my food panniers off the ground and at a distance from the tent, but often forgot some toiletries or snack food in my tent. Given how many black bears I had startled at the roadside in the last couple of days, I decided to be more thorough. Mark my words, getting two heavy bags twenty feet up a tree in the dark when you’re tired is not as easy as it sounds. Bone weary from a long day and post-supper sleepiness, I threw my rope over a branch and started hauling the Ursack and a pannier up into the tree. I fumbled the knot on the trunk and the pannier dropped straight down on my head, sending me reeling.
Now early September, the nights were drawing in. Riding late again, dark clouds massed and brought an end to daylight earlier than I expected. I hadn’t water to camp, so I battled though the downpour looking for a place to fill up. Around 9pm, I stalked the empty rain sodden streets of Kitwanga village, seeking a friendly house to beg water. The warm glow of a restaurant drew me in, but they were in the process of closing up. I dripped on their floor as they filled my water bottles and told me there’s free camping in the park across the street. Once again, just as things looked grim, they came around full circle. Amongst tall pines I found an abandoned campfire still smouldering in a grate. I pitched the tent and discovered two cyclists and a motorcyclist camping under a picnic shelter nearby. They had left the fire when the rain came on, but it was easily rekindled.
Breakfast was in welcome company after a solitary nine days since leaving Whitehorse, chatting with Israeli cyclists Lior and Aya touring North America on their first big trip, and solo motorcyclist Safia. I pushed out one more big day to reach Telkwa, where the owner of a trailer park kept a small cabin available for touring cyclists. There I met Spanish cyclist Rafael, heading north from Mexico to Alaska. JJ, the cabin’s owner, offered us the use of his truck to make a grocery run to Smithers. My first time driving such a big truck was a strange experience, not only for being a left hand drive and fully automatic, but easily two tonnes. It was good to witness first hand the feeling of invulnerability in such a monster – important to remember and allow for it when I am on the bike.
Rafael had pared down his equipment to just two pannier bags. He scavenged the bric-a-brac left by previous occupants, adding a few warmer layers to his clothing for his late season journey to Alaska. “I don’t carry things!”, he told me proudly. I could see his point, I do carry a lot of ‘things’. But we cover the same distance and camp in a similar way. So what’s the difference? I have a little more comfort when I am camping. I have things for reading and writing. But I admired Rafael’s make-do attitude, which inspired an honest appraisal of my clothing bag. I discarded several items too ragged to repair, lightening my load minutely. But still I left with twice as much stuff as he had.
I sat out three rainy days at the cabin, writing, reading and eating. With no more slack left in my schedule, I pushed off on the Yellowhead Highway, known as the Highway of Tears for the number of women (mostly native North Americans) who have disappeared while hitchhiking. Their faces looked out from giant billboards urging people not to risk it. My immediate problem was that the fast highway was getting busier with commercial haulage and private cars as I tracked east. The shoulder was often littered with debris, pieces of truck tyres and their metal wires, which broke down into short shards, deadly to bicycle tyres. My slipshod attitude to bike maintenance finally caught up with me. On this dangerous road at this moment, the rear derailleur shat itself, eviscerating its bearings in bits of ground up metal. So long as I kept in one of two gears it was more or less workable, but to change into a gear low enough for uphills I had to stop and manually put the chain back on the jockey wheels of the trashed rear-mech. In a gas station I asked for a payphone so I could alert my Warmshowers hosts to my delayed arrival. A customer waiting in line insisted I use her mobile, then having heard my situation offered to drive me the forty kilometres to my host. Initial resistance to accepting a lift didn’t stand up to the scrutiny of common sense. The gear problem was only getting worse. Faced with riding half the night, and potentially having to hitchhike anyway, I accepted.
In Vanderhoof I spent a convivial evening playing cards with hosts Felicity and Gordon at their farm, along with a couple of young German volunteers. More luck: next morning they were taking a trailer load of produce to sell at the farmers’ market in Prince George, where I could get the bike fixed. At 5am we all piled bleary eyed into the truck, and drove the 110 km through the first snow showers of winter. It would have been a miserable ride on a busy road with one gear. By midday I was all fixed up at the bike shop and installed with Warmshowers host, Eric, in Prince George. Eric is a cyclist’s cyclist, an experienced tourer with a big appetite and even bigger heart. Although he was already hosting someone when I arrived, immediately he offered me a rest day if I needed it, showed me around and then went back to work at the local police station, where he superintends the jail. During my stay he got a request from another two cyclists due to arrive on a late train from Prince Rupert. The Canadian Pacific train is often subject to delays, and Eric went out twice during the night to see if it had come in. I woke to find him cooking breakfast, chatting with two Spanish cyclists whom he’d surprised on the platform when their train finally pulled in eight hours late. They’d assumed they’d have to sleep in the station, before their onward connection to Jasper.
Traffic abated east of Prince George, most of it drawn south to Kamloops and Vancouver. I had a tentative yes from a host in Jasper, but with no Canadian SIM card and long hops between free wifi hotspots I had to trust to luck. As I made my lunchtime picnic beside Moose Lake, a cyclist approached and hailed me by my name. Bruce, my host from Jasper, had decided to spend his day off taking the train out to the head of the lake and riding back 50km with me. A railwayman himself, it was no problem getting the guard to drop him off even though there was no station or platform. Bruce suggested that to avoid the Jasper National Park fee, I might tell the ranger I wasn’t going to stay in the park overnight, that I was going to Hinton (despite it being another eighty kilometres; non-cyclists never really know what distance is reasonable). In the event, there was such a long line of cars at the toll gate that we just zipped through in high gear. Everyone was too busy to notice or care about a couple of bicycles.
My route to Banff was the Icefields Parkway, through the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, up close to several glaciers. Gallingly, the forecast was for rain, falling as snow at the 1000m plus elevation of the Icefields road. I was on the hook to get to Banff to meet Steve in three days – exactly the time required to ride the distance, no slack to wait out the weather. Bruce gave me the inside track on wildcamping and hostels in the National Park. And, once again, tips on how to bypass the fee stations on the road into Banff national park, simply by taking a mountain bike track along the riverside. We were now officially in winter season, so most of the camp grounds were closed. Bruce had done the route in similar conditions last winter and made an overnight stop at a closed campground. A passing ranger had spotted his campfire smoke and evicted him and his cycling partner, but eventually realised the folly of turfing out cyclists on a winter night and drove them off the mountain to a hostel.
The Parkway road climbs gradually from Jasper through swathes of brown, dying trees – an infestation of spruce beetle running unchecked through Alaska and Canada. The decaying forest and leaden skies gave the day a melancholy tinge, but the steady climb oxygenated my brain and kept me focused. I stopped for lunch where the Athabasca River punches a thunderous cataract through a narrow gorge. Rain kicked in as I boiled up noodles, so I set my sights on Beauty Creek youth hostel for the night. Canada is a contender for most expensive country of my trip, so paid accommodation was generally way beyond my budget. But $35 for a warm place to cook and sleep and the company of fellow travellers was money well spent on a damp, freezing night. Wet snow fell all night and continued in the morning. With 120km over two passes to the next hostel, it was time for the tough to get going. Stripped down to shirtsleeves and rolled up trouser legs for the climbs, I had to quickly add layers and change into my winter gloves at the top of each hill. The Athabasca Glacier, hidden in cloud and snow less than 500m from the road, might as well have been in another province.
I had been unable to contact the youth hostel at Mosquito Creek, a day’s ride from Banff, but the warden at Beauty Creek told me there’s a policy not to turn away people on foot or bicycle in winter. They always make space, she assured me. Darkness and sleety rain fell as I crested the last pass before a long descent to Mosquito Creek. I scrabbled to get geared up as quickly as possible and rammed another cereal bar in my mouth. If I lost the heat I’d generated from the climb I would be in trouble on the descent. Unlike in Alaska, where temperatures had been mild in the rain, here it was scarcely above freezing, and every second counted. Good decisions at the right times. One bad decision can quickly lead to another, becoming a downward spiral.
I staggered up to the door of Mosquito Creek hostel wet through and half frozen. My heart sank when I saw the sign: ‘no vacancy’, but I knocked on the warden’s door anyway. He answered in an impatient huff – couldn’t I read? Why hadn’t I checked the online booking system? (The booking system had been offline for maintenance when I was in Jasper, and I told him so). We talked for a minute and he softened his demeanour once he saw my situation. But the hostel was booked out by a school group. If it was just regular guests, he would of course make room, but it was out of his hands. Look he said, head over the stream to the campsite, there’s a stove in the shelter, camp in there and get warmed up.
The wood stove was already blazing in the shelter, where a couple of campervan travellers from BC and a German couple were cooking dinner. I rigged up a drying line over the range and hung out my wet gear. In half an hour I had on dry clothes and had a cup of hot soup in my hands. I let out a sigh of satisfaction mixed with relief at having pulled it off. Pushing my energy reserves to the limit in foul weather always gives me a buzz. But I’m glad there aren’t too many days like that on tour, all the same.
It had been no easy trick to find a host in the chic ski resort of Banff. In nearby Canmore, I coaxed Warmshowers hosts Toivo and Suzanne out of temporary hosting retirement. For a couple of nights Toivo gave over his basement rec room to me, a perfect den to prepare for the next leg. There I got a much needed rest day, before meeting Steve fresh from England, raring to go on the Great Divide Mountain Bike route into Montana. Canada had a final surprise for me. Toivo and Suzanne’s last guest, less than two weeks prior, was Canadian Tara, of cycling across Asia, Australia and New Zealand fame. She’d had to abandon her Continental Divide tour right there in Canmore due to injury. I wondered what would have happened had we bumped into each other, as sometimes happens at Warmshowers hosts. I got my wish to make a clean run across the country after all.
Videos from this part of my trip:
10 September 2019 @ 04:29
Close call in Carnmore !
Same stuff but different enough – brothers wise .
Glad to be reliving parts of your journey ourselves in our own modest way – thanks for the inspiration Dan.
Mark and Clare
10 September 2019 @ 06:05
Thanks Mark & Clare. Enjoy western USA. Stay safe!
7 September 2019 @ 14:02
Hi Daniel. Brilliant opening paragraphs and quite moving as I was there, but not really, if you know what I mean. Super writing style too.
All the best
7 September 2019 @ 22:46
Thanks Andy. I’m glad you were around, your enthusiasm for adventure and fettling taught me a lot as a nipper. Keep on truckin, brother!