I’d decided to follow in the footsteps, or rather the paw prints, of the Yukon Quest race, an international dog sledding race that followed meandering historic trade routes through the great expansive wildernesses of the Yukon and Alaska. But rather than a team of dogs hauling me through the hundreds of miles of trail I instead had my trusty carbon steed underneath me, eating up the well compacted snow along the roller coaster trails. It was breath-taking. Never had I thought that I would be in this landscape, a landscape consisting of collaged images and imaginations from a youth spent reading adventure tales, and never on a bicycle!
After arriving in Dawson City I bade farewell to the Quest route as it crossed the border into Alaska and took to the Dempster highway. This was to be the real progress into the far north; a road that pushed deep through mountains, forests and tundra alike. Again, the first few days were breath taking but relatively straight forward and it wasn’t until I crossed the Arctic Circle that things really began to get difficult. The mercury in my thermometer plummeted, and as I rode over the Richardson Mountains, through the aptly named ‘Hurricane Alley’, I was fighting a growing storm. Winds were beating me back, white out conditions limited visibility to a matter of metres and I was really beginning to wonder what I was doing here. This part of the highway is infamous for closing for days and even weeks at a time. I guessed that the road would be closed within a few hours, but without food to sit out the storm in my tent my only option was to fight through and hope to pass over the mountains before all hell let loose. It was a difficult decision to make, but that was the very reason I’d come on this journey.
As I lay in my tent one night along the Peel river, listening to the faint howl of wolves in the distance and being reminded of the strong words of advice I’d received before setting off down the river, “don’t worry about the cold, it’s the wolves you need to watch out for”, I must admit I felt very alone. Suddenly my mind would zoom out from where my tent was and reveal the enormity of the desolate landscape that surrounded me, and instil the sense of just how small I really was. A very humbling thought indeed. But, I began to struggle to hear the sound of the wolves over the flapping of my tent. The wind was picking up and shaking both the tent and my nerves alike. My mind raced to all sorts of scenarios, let loose on its rampage of imagination and what could happen being stuck out here in an Arctic storm. How long would the storm even last? Fortunately, after some terrified hours the storm passed and both my tent and I got through bruised but not broken. However, as the sun rose to mark another day I stared out to what was supposed to be my ‘route down the river’ and saw only unbroken snow. Tent packed away I took my bike onto where I thought the route had been but no luck. Deep soft powder that a heavily laden fat bike could certainly not plough through. I was stuck, in the middle of the river, in the middle of the Canadian Arctic, in winter, and I could no longer cycle. I was screwed.
I had no other choice but to begin pushing my bike. I tried to figure out just how far I had to go until I would reach Aklavik, the village at the end of the river, the number I plucked for was 60 km. 60km of deep snow, of bitter cold, of hidden wolves. But it was also 60km trapped in my own thoughts. I needed to rationalise the situation. I took stock of the food I had and the progress I was going to make. I had roughly two days worth of food (thank god I'd bought more) and figuring a 1km/h speed it should take 4 days. The wind was still blowing strongly from the north, shaping and then reshaping the ice crystals that act as 'snow' up here. Drifts would move and reform along the river, my legs plunging through the thin frozen top layer of snow. It was definitely hard, 50 kg of bike to haul down the river, but, I realised that my mind just wasn't where it needed to be. I'd travelled deep into the empty Canadian Arctic to rediscover that joy of solitude, but on the river I was left with a bitter sense of loneliness. The daydreaming of daring-do was a far cry from the reality of being stuck in a place that I had no experience in, and that nobody, not even my family, knew where I was. And so for three days I did battle with the body and the mind against the environment around me, and nothing came easy. But, late on that third day, through the greyness of the river I saw two lights bobbing slowly towards me. They were gradually getting closer and closer until I realised that they were two men on snow mobiles! I beckoned them over, wondering who they were and what they were doing out here. It turned out they were the local search and rescue team, dispatched to come look for me after word had spread that there was a 'British cyclist' on the river, and that I'd not been spotted since before the storm. I was so grateful to see them, to be thrust from the madness of being alone in such a scary place. It turned out that the point at which they found was was just a mere two kilometres away from a freshly cleared bit of river. Had I continued to push I'd have made it to the town and off the river before nightfall.
TWO CONTINENTS COMPLETED
All that remained was for me to reach the finish line, the frozen Arctic Sea and the remote town of Tuktoyaktuk. I was shaken by the events on the Peel River and definitely considered ending my trip there, but I’d started at the tip of South America and so I was definitely going to finish at the tip of Canada! Riding over a frozen ocean was a bizarre experience. When the land falls away from around you and you are left with just the vast emptiness of frozen sea, stretching unbroken to the North Pole. It’s an image seared into my memory, an experience that will stay with me forever. And the emotion, coursing through my body as I saw the scatter of buildings rise up into the horizon, realising my finish line was in sight. It was incredible. Simply incredible. I never thought that I would ever make it this far, to reach the Arctic Sea and the end of my second continent. As I rode into the village, sun setting over one of the most inspiring vistas I’ve ever seen, I looked for something to celebrate with. Unfortunately, being a ‘dry’ town the beer would have to wait, and so instead I settled on some fruit juice and a packet of crisps and went in search of a warm place to sit and reflect. Unfortunately the only place that I could find was the grocery store toilet.